For understandable reasons, the attention of the Westminster bubble (and indeed, of these notes) has been captured of late by the ongoing shenanigans at the top of the Labour Party. Every day has brought a fresh revelation, controversy or self-inflicted wound. And so it has been easy – and, let’s face it, fun – to concentrate on Corbyn at the expense of the rest of politics. But we must tear our eyes away and cease with the rubber necking, if only briefly, because the rest of politics hasn’t stopped happening just because we’ve all stopped watching.
The Prime Minister is conspicuously enjoying his good fortune. Indeed, David Cameron might be forgiven for believing that he has been chosen personally by God for favour. He lost an election but became Prime Minister anyway in 2010. Nicola Sturgeon’s unpredictable and unprecedented surge to glory helped him over the line in 2015. And now, just as he should be drowning in acrimony, bitterness and betrayal on the Europe question everyone is enjoying the Jeremy show too much to pay any attention.
But Cameron cannot defy gravity forever and the wages of his original political sin must be paid one day. He has long used the question of this country’s global relationships, and of our national sovereignty, as a political bargaining chip. Back in 2005, when he struggled to persuade the Tory grassroots that he was trustworthy, he promised to withdraw the Conservative Party from its alliances with mainstream centre-Right European parties in Brussels. Seeing an opportunity to wrong-foot Gordon Brown, he pledged a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty – a promise the breaking of which forced him into the current situation. As for the ‘renegotiation’ and forthcoming referendum, they are a product in part of Cameron being a whole lot luckier than he ever thought he’d be. Presuming that he would be negotiated out of anything too drastic by Lib Dems, on his way back into a coalition, the promise of a referendum seemed like a good wheeze for dampening UKIP support.
Now it is real. And the Conservative Party will have to deal with the consequences. At least 100 Tory MPs will oppose their Leader and campaign to leave. So too will a smattering of Cabinet Ministers (liberated now that Cameron has had to, begrudgingly, grant them a temporary exemption from collective responsibility). Expect Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and IDS to endorse ‘Leave’ for certain. If none of Theresa May, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid or Boris Johnson follow suit then Cameron will have done very well indeed.
But messy as all this will be, the current climate undoubtedly makes it easier for the Tory top brass to make the best of a bad situation. There is simply more room for good-natured disagreement when you are in power, not to mention very much more patronage at one’s disposal. Yes there will be discord, but harmony is easily bought when you can make half a dozen MPs life peers with the stroke of a pen. And the irresistible hilarity of Bolsheviks vs. Mensheviks over at Labour HQ (not to mention the tantalising knowledge that Corbyn won’t really believe the pro- Europe platitudes he’ll be forced to mouth) is a force for unity on the Conservative benches.
So he might be lucky again. A split that isn’t too painful or too permanent on his own benches. A referendum won. The path to power for his friend and ally at Number 11 smoothed and a half-decent legacy won. David Cameron may well be feeling even more smug in 18 months time. Unless, of course (and as the polls keep reminding us is possible) he loses his plebiscite. If that happens, no amount of Corbynite hi-jinks will save the Prime Minister from the stark reality of a career reduced to tatters for the sake of temporary political expediency. If Britain votes ‘leave’ he’ll will be the first to be forced to pack his bags, and all other bets are off. But that would be a stroke of bad luck, and such things don’t seem to happen much to David Cameron.