Cameron has donned kid gloves for his fight with Tory eurosceptics

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 18 January 2016 in Opinion
The Prime Minister is determined to avoid a Pyrrhic victory in the European referendum campaign

Students of history will remember that it was King Pyrrhus of Epirus whose army was devastated as it defeated the Romans at Heraclea and Asculum during the Pyrrhic War.

David Cameron and the older figures in his Cabinet are acutely conscious of this lesson from the Ancients. And it’s guiding the way the Premier deals with the sensitivities of the forthcoming EU referendum.

It would be easy for the PM to emerge victorious in his efforts to keep Britain in the EU, but leading a deeply divided and ungovernable Conservative Party. The lessons of a much more recent strategic disaster in Tory history are looming large.

Happily for the PM, there are enough older heads in and around Cabinet and number 10 to remember the blood and guts spilled during the Maastricht revolt.

Successive Conservative leaders have struggled to bury the hatchet and unite the pro and anti EU voices in their Party ever since. Britain’s membership of the European Union has now become a matter of conscience for too many MPs, constituency associations and grassroots members.

For them, it’s an issue akin to abortion or euthanasia. Laying down the law under these circumstances would not only be futile, it would be deeply divisive and cause scars which would never heal.

A PM with an EU referendum victory under his belt is no PM at all if he can’t lead his Party beyond the day. Winning the battle but losing the war is the clear and present danger. And it’s for this reason Mr Cameron has decided to approach his ministers and MPs in the way he deftly handled Chris Grayling’s shot across the bows.

The fiercely Eurosceptic Commons Leader’s attack on the EU’s direction of travel was no surprise in its content. But the timing was interesting to observers trying to gauge who’d be first in the Tory Right to break ranks.

Liam Fox’s New Year drinks party is always a gathering of the Tory Right and its extended family. Cabinet ministers, Peers, captains of industry, journalists, celebrities and others gathered with Dr Fox at the Conservative Party’s spiritual home, the Carlton Club,  only a few days before Mr Grayling’s Daily Telegraph article.

The mood was good. Guests were full of praise at Mr Cameron’s decision to allow them to campaign freely for the Leave side. But within days, word seeped out that there would be terms and conditions on their ability to campaign.

This is the fine line Mr Cameron must tread. Wise heads who’ve been there before – at Maastricht – are still significant figures in the Cabinet. Recent interventions by defence secretary Michael Fallon and transport supremo Patrick McLoughlin have helped to check Cabinet tension. 

Both have made the point that the Conservative Party cannot afford the “blood and guts and horror” of the Maastricht rebellion. Especially with the Labour Party poised to consign itself to political oblivion for a generation under a Leader who polls suggest may be unelectable.

Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, was himself one of the chief rebels over the Maastricht Treaty. Yet he, too, is aware of the painful divisions it caused the Party he went on to lead. And so Mr Cameron knows he has little choice but to let his people speak rather than suppress his colleagues.

This will be the way he manages the coming weeks and months. Number 10’s “shrug of the shoulders” response to Mr Grayling’s piece is a template of what we should expect from the PM’s team.

It’s much harder to criticise him – or “behave badly” as one staffer puts it - if he demonstrates a magnanimous response, he believes.

Remember, this is about keeping the Party united and governable post the June or September national vote. But there are many bridges yet to cross for Mr Cameron.

The Leave campaign has yet to find a truly powerful leadership figure. Could that be Boris Johnson? Is he prepared to gamble all his leadership ambitions on one European throw of the dice?

Lead the Leave campaign to victory and he would possibly seize the Tory crown. No wonder strategists around Mr Cameron are pondering handing him a Cabinet seat in May, once he steps down as London Mayor.

And talking of May, where is Theresa May on all of this? Her silence is deafening. Even The Sun tipped her as the figure to lead the “out” charge and promised great political riches would lie before her if she could summon the courage.

The Leave campaign is seen by Cameroons to be offering an “insane” argument – which is effectively for two referenda, not one. Many believe the “outers” are tying themselves in knots in their efforts to drum up support amongst voters who don’t really want to leave the EU.

This year is the year that counts. Mr Cameron firmly believes he will win the vote nationally. But he doesn’t want the albatross of history to be around his neck.

As King Pyrrhus is reported to have said: "Another such victory and I come back to Epirus alone".


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