EU Referendum

EU Referendum: devil and the deep blue sea


A startling example of egocentricity arrived yesterday in the Guardian, with Bernard Jenkin asking: "What's the point of EU referendum debate if ministers are muzzled?"

These people really haven't even begun to understand what a referendum is about – failing to appreciate that this is a decision made by the people, after the politicians have been unable to settle the matter. And, in that instance, the very last people we want to be doing right now is listen to a bunch of politicians sounding off – especially High Tories, whose record for consistency is not exactly good.

Not least we have to contend with the man who in May 2001 was telling us that we had 12 days to save the pound, with the forthcoming election set to determine, "whether we continue to have a Government that is sovereign in this country … whether we carry on deciding our own affairs at future general elections".

This, of course, was William Hague, who now blithely declares that, "even as a long-standing critic of so much of that struggling organisation, I am unlikely in 2016 to vote to leave it".

Notwithstanding that no-one in 2016 is going to get a chance to vote for leaving the EU, we have here the former leader of a Tory opposition who once called himself "eurosceptic", and – which only a tiny number of honourable exceptions - about as trustworthy as the rest of the Tory breed.

Interestingly, a person in June 2002 who was similarly keen on excluding Tories from the debate – this time on the single currency – was Dominic Cummings who, as Director of Strategy for the Conservative Party, told the Independent newspaper:
The biggest potential threat to the pound's survival is the Conservative Party. If the Conservative Party were to define the anti-euro campaign and articulate its message as it has in the past, then Blair has a real opportunity to win a referendum.
He then added that: "It is difficult for some [Tories] to accept – but nevertheless true – that for many people, just about the only thing less popular than the euro is the Tory party", a stance which later had Melanie Phillips suggesting that he had told the newspaper that his party was so unpopular "it would have to be wrapped in a large sack and dropped down a deep well during the euro referendum campaign".

In addition to keeping Tories out of the limelight, Cummings – on the day that he had started work as Director of Strategy – had set out his own strategy for winning the then expected referendum, while in Business for Sterling. "If", he said, "we make the economic case against the euro effectively, and link losing control to living standards, then the polls will not move and Blair cannot win".

Nearly fourteen years later, the same Dominic Cummings is pursuing a very similar strategy, but this time making the economic case not against the euro but the European Union as a whole, voting to "take control" of our living standards.

What is indicative about this is that, way back over a decade ago, Mr Cummings had the advantage of the status quo. He was therefore adopting a blocking strategy which would prevent the polls soaring, thereby stopping Mr Blair from winning.

Against this limited and well-defined objective, that was a sound enough strategy. But now, with the positions reversed, Mr Cummings seems to believe that effectively the same strategy can have the opposite effect to that which he sought in the euro referendum.

Back in the day, Cummings had "walked out" on Conservative Central Office after eight months, without explaining why he had left, his contract having been bought out for a six-figure sum – a price thought to be small recompense for being able to get rid of the man.

Certainly, Norman Tebbit was pleased that the Party had rid itself of one of its "squabbling children" and "spotty youths", leaving Cummings to devote himself "… to other things outside politics". A Cummings ally on the other hand, said: "Dominic believes that centre-right parties need nothing short of a revolution, a complete transformation of how they operate. He feels those at the top of the party do not understand the scale of the problem they face and are incapable of taking the action necessary".

Sadly, following a break from EU issues of more than a decade, he is now back to haunt us, without any real idea of how to conduct a campaign to leave the EU – himself suffering from the affliction of failing to understand the nature of the problem, in an organisation "incapable of taking the action necessary".

Oddly, some clue comes from an unexpected source, Ryan Bourne – head of public policy at the IEA. Concluding that the UK was "so entrenched in this [EU] system that it will take years to unpick it", he decided that, "leaving should be seen as more of a process than a one-off event".

When I observed that it was good to have the theme used, but would have been "better to have had the source acknowledged as well", Bourne did at least admit that he probably should have acknowledged the Flexcit "influence".

That, however, was not the end of the matter. Enter Cummings, the man without a plan, with a jibe of his own, purporting to cite me as the "cult's hi priest", with what might have been a direct quote: "I'd rather lose than let [others] take credit for it".

Taken not from me but from Pete North, in one of his "black dog" moods, this low jibe marks out a man, currently architect of "Project Nasty", who has made a career out of causing disruption and mayhem and then standing back to enjoy the results.

Between Tory "eurosceptics" on the one hand, and Cummings with his re-warmed Business for Sterling campaign on the other, we are between the Devil and the dark blue sea. Yet, bizarrely, inside these two unattractive propositions, there are – according to the Times - growing tensions.

Senior Tory "eurosceptics", we are told, have heavily criticised Vote Leave for launching "despicable" attacks on David Cameron. While, inevitably, the Prime Minister – as de facto leaver of the "remains" – will come under direct attack, MPs are concerned that Dominic Cummings is using his position to pursue a vendetta against the prime minister.

A former aide to Michael Gove, Cummings publicly insulted Mr Cameron last year, calling him a "sphinx without a riddle", declaring that, "he bumbles from one shambles to another without the slightest sense of purpose". Cummings went on to say: "Everyone is trying to find the secret of David Cameron, but he is what he appears to be. He had a picture of Macmillan on his wall — that's all you need to know".

As we know from recent experience, Cummings is quick to insult those who do not please him, currently dismissing Flexcit supporters as a "cult" and another critic as "noise" – derivative, if nothing else. But now it seems MPs close to him are losing patience and demanding he be sacked if he uses the "leave" campaign to attack Mr Cameron.

It is easy to see why we would be less than enthusiastic about supporting either party to this dispute, and one wonders how much longer it will hold together. Whether others can rise to the plate, however, remains to be seen.