As we know, political parties in Britain are coalitions. Our first-past-the-post electoral system makes things so. It is, therefore, natural and inevitable that disagreements will exist and, from time to time, surface vociferously within these coalitions. Conservatives must not, however, behave in such a blindly partisan way during this EU referendum as to disparage our in-house opponents and discredit the party. There is a danger that recent conduct, from campaigners on both sides, is crossing the line from civil debate to internecine sniping and smearing.
Conservatives for both ‘in’ and ‘out’ are guilty of poor conduct. Each side likes to paint the other as the reckless fearmonger who cannot be trusted; as the dishonest propagator of deliberate untruths. The reality is that dodgy statistics and brash predictions of doom have been forthcoming from both sides.
The economic forecasts from the Treasury were not only widely rubbished by economists, but needlessly agitated the Leave camp – there are enough reputable studies which suggest Brexit would be harmful, so why did the PM and the Chancellor think it necessary to publish such an overtly partisan and distorted analysis? As with the insinuations that Brexit may lead to war in Europe, the government has brought ridicule upon itself and upon important issues which deserve more serious scrutiny.
Meanwhile the Leave campaign continues to assert that ‘we send Brussels £350m every week!’ despite repeated repudiation from numerous independent sources. The UK receives an immediate rebate from the EU, and considerable amounts of EU funding is spent here; of course, these are funds over which we have no control, but the £350m figure is nonetheless highly misleading. Indeed, there is an argument that, whatever the true sum, we send too much money to Brussels. Tory Leavers are only entrenching the divisions and distrust that already exist between the two sides. The government, of course, is doing so too.
What perhaps is even more alarming is the increasing personal rancour of the campaign. It is a cliché to say ‘play the ball, not the man’, but it is a truism nonetheless. The assertions that opponents are unpatriotic, or insincere, or intentional and calculating liars not only dispirit voters and party members, but they make it ever more difficult to foresee a successful party reunification post-referendum.
This descent of the campaign into personal attacks also highlights the strategic mistake so many campaigners are making. For typical voters, the EU is not a matter of primary concern. If the Tory Party once again seems to cascade into Euro-neuroticism, it will paint an image of a party not interested by the issues that matter to the wider public. Spreading opportunity, advancing a social justice agenda, making the NHS more sustainable, building the homes we need, protecting Britain from terrorism: these are the issues which people expect parties to deal with. The Labour Party’s apparent obsession with nuclear disarmament and historical revisionism (‘Hitler was a Zionist’) are rendering it an irrelevance presently. The Conservative Party made this mistake in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the results speak for themselves.
Ironically, it seems that the protagonists and antagonists of this particular period are most guilty of the ill conduct in evidence now. Many younger Tories, on both sides of the Brexit argument, are dismayed by the behaviour of their elders in the party. It seems, similarly, that the newer generations of Conservative MPs are treating the referendum as far less of a do-or-die scenario than many more experienced MPs. It provides a bit of hope that these legions of Conservatives will be able to come back together after 23rd June to ensure our party governs responsibly and successfully for the remainder of this Parliament.
In order for this to happen, the result of the referendum must be respected. There must be no screams of ‘conspiracy’ when the result is announced, even if it is only by one vote. There must be no calls for another referendum if the outcome is not the desired outcome – how we have denounced the Scottish Nationalists’ opportunism in demanding another independence referendum! There must be no clamour for ‘revenge’ against the losers. There should be no requirement for the PM to step down, though he may decide to, should Leave win. If Remain win, Mr Cameron ought to reshuffle his cabinet, promoting and demoting Remainers and Leavers in equal measure. It must be made clear to all ministers that the referendum has finished, and collective responsibility applies again. Those who have taken its suspension as license to criticise all government policy, like Priti Patel, should answer for that behaviour; those who have persistently sniped at Brexit MPs should not be rewarded for rudeness.
Above all, the task of bringing the party back together would be far easier if its members’ behaviour now were more civil. It is therefore why I entreaty all party members to be a little more thoughtful, and a little less angry, in the final few weeks of this interminable referendum campaign.