It’s only been 8 days since the Prime Minister fired the starting gun on the EU referendum campaign outside 10 Downing Street last Saturday, but Harold Wilson’s adage that a week is a long time in politics has proven true once more. Many politicos I know are already heartily sick of the Brexit debate, meanwhile what was hoped in Downing Street to be a civil campaign has already shown worrying signs of turning into a street fight verging on civil war. Of course, the media are as usual doing their best to hype up all Blue-on-Blue splits, but they’re certainly getting more than a little help from former friends on opposing sides of the campaign.
There’s blame on both sides, but in my own entirely unscientific sample of people I follow on twitter personalised attacks are being launched from the leave side at a rate of about 9 to 1 in comparison to remain. This tone has been led by right wing members of the media, and sadly, Conservative Home, the alleged voice of the grassroots party, which has set about portraying the Prime Minister as a dishonest conman with relish. This is the same leader who in 2010 took us within shouting distance of a majority after the biggest gain in seats the party had managed in the modern era, and then just last year, won us our first majority in over 20 years.
After a week of continual bombardment against every politician who stuck their head above the parapet to support the government’s official position, Conservative Home did finally publish a welcome, if slightly tongue in cheek article, citing Remain supporting MPs it believed to be principled, all 6 of them. More positively, it did also release an article on ways to keep the Tory tribe together, with some very good ideas, such as making sure there is enough focus on non-referendum issues in the next four months. There needs to be much more of this talk in the next few months, and a very careful avoidance of personalising the genuine and principled divisions on this issue within the government, ministers such as Chris Grayling have demonstrated well how to openly address the splits. IDS and others have also said how grateful they are that the Prime Minister has given them the chance to vote to leave at all, without a Conservative majority government it is unlikely people would have had the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights on this fundamental question. It is also worth putting all of this in perspective, we are extraordinarily lucky to live in such a free and beautiful island.
There is much that is great in Britain, and Conservatives have worked hard to restore Britain’s economy over the last five and a half years, but there is much more to be done. No division of opinion over the EU referendum within the party should put in peril the greater project of revitalising Britain’s economy and society. This is especially true now that Labour has elected its most left-wing leader in a generation, one with even more dangerous views on foreign policy than Michael Foot, the last Labour leader to wholeheartedly support unilateral nuclear disarmament (Neil Kinnock eventually persuaded the party to change its position in 1989). On Saturday Corbyn stood on stage with CND activists to denounce the system of deterrence that kept the peace throughout the Cold War. There seems little doubt that whatever facts the ongoing Labour defence policy review presents, the Labour leader is committed to scrapping trident. Electing him our Prime Minister risks making any system of nuclear deterrence obsolete, he has already openly said he would not use it in a situation of last resort.
Corbyn seems a decent and principled man, but his weak foreign and defence policy, combined with his disastrous economic policies risk rolling back decades of restoring Britain’s place in the world. Conservatives cannot afford to let divisions allow a Corbyn-led government into power by default in 2020, the country would never forgive us for it, and rightly. Corbyn himself recognises there are much bigger battles to be won than over EU membership and seems likely to only give the campaign half his attention in the coming months. Both sides of the Tory referendum debate would do well to remember that whatever the perceived negative results of leaving or remaining in the EU, they would be as nothing to the catastrophe of a Corbynite government.