Richard North, 03/05/2004  

As predicted, Tony Blair has invoked Cabinet responsibility, possibly for the first time in his Premiership. While normally, he darts around like a latter-day Superman, “solving” all the problems he should leave to his Ministers, over the EU Referendum he remains firm … for the time being.

In a letter to the veteran Labour politician and euro-sceptic, Tony Benn, Blair has explained that it would be “peculiar” for Ministers to campaign against a Constitution that is considered to be a good thing by the Government.

Back in 1975 Harold Wilson took the same line at first, only to find himself having to give way and allowing Ministers campaign as they wished. Mr Benn thinks that it is even more important to allow personal responsibility over the Constitution. A vote over it should not be turned into “a party battle”, which is, presumably, what Mr Blair would like.

Many things may happen between now and the referendum and the Prime Minister may find that he is unable to control his Ministers as he will, presumably, be unable to control his backbenchers. He will then be risking a big split in his party or, possibly, a mass exodus of discontented Ministers. (Though, on present experience, we should not bank on that.)

If he does not agree to freedom of campaigning, he may keep his Cabinet together (just) but hand the Conservatives an excellent weapon as well as confirm the view of himself as a man who has no real liking for or trust in democracy.

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