Let’s be fair. David Cameron probably didn’t have much in the way of options when he announced that ministers would be able to campaign for or against remaining in the European Union.
The alternative was that the Prime Minister stuck with the tried and tested argument of the Cabinet’s collective responsibility. That might have papered over the cracks for a little while – most likely until Mr Cameron was able to announce the results of his much anticipated ‘re-negotiation’ process. But some ministers might have felt the need to resign sooner rather than later, while ensuring Mr Cameron’s cabinet table was deprived of some of his best and brightest.
The Prime Minister would also doubtless have factored in that some of his more Eurosceptic colleagues were less dangerous to him and his legacy within the Cabinet tent than outside it. And some of the possible dissenters, such as Boris Johnson, are capable of scuppering the PM’s campaign without the additional motivation of being kicked out of their ministerial briefs.
In telling ministers they can vote and campaign how their conscience leads them, the Prime Minister has probably achieved the best of a bad situation. His caveat is that no-one breaks ranks until after the renegotiation process is completed. And if the results are wholly unsatisfactory, it may be that some ministers will choose to stand down and campaign to their hearts’ content rather than place their party leader in such an invidious place.
This doesn’t make Mr Cameron’s positon any the less precarious. He and his team will have observed and endeavoured to learn the lessons of the Labour split over Syrian airstrikes. Because the Conservatives could find themselves in a similar position over Europe.
Mr Cameron’s challenge is now three-fold. Firstly, he needs to achieve a re-negotiation that is likely to appease his Eurosceptics. Getting them all on side is probably too much to hope for. But he can at least get to a position that allows the Conservatives to campaign on a more united front.
Secondly, Mr Cameron and his team need to establish how they’ll ensure it’s possible for ministers to work together even if campaigning against one another. Europe has always been a major issue for the Tories. But it’s not the only issue, and Mr Cameron – whether it be through a parliamentary programme riddled with Tory values or stern warnings to his ministers – will have to get the message across that while ‘we disagree on this, we agree on everything else.’
Finally, Mr Cameron’s communications strategy will have to be spot on. He can ill-afford equivocation or ambiguity about what he’s achieved, where he stands, and what the expectations are for his ministers. Failure to meet this last challenge will pit the Tories best and brightest against one another, with the potential for relations to deteriorate as they have in the Parliamentary Labour Party.