PM David Cameron let ministers to campaign for EU exit. Why such decision, regarding the referendum campaign could this be an advantage for No side or maybe not so much, and why? Read few comments.
Jonathan Tonge, Professor of Politics, University of Liverpool
Cameron had no choice as it is certain that some of his ministers will campaign against remaining in the EU. If he had not allowed his ministers to campaign on either side of the argument, those wanting to exit the EU would have resigned (or had to be sacked) so it is less embarrassing – and better for party unity – to allow ‘Stay’ and ‘Leave’ campaigning. Cameron’s bigger problem is the state of his ‘renegotiation’ with the EU. Few people believe it is credible or achieving much and a vote to leave the EU is not impossible.
He was facing the prospect of several Cabinet ministers resigning over being forced to tow the line on staying in after the renegotiation. By allowing ministers to vote freely he is removing this short-term political problem but it may make it harder to restore a collective position after the referendum if the Remain camp wins. It very much depends on whether or not Cameron’s renegotiation exceeds the already low expectations within the Conservative Party. If he does satisfy some of those thinking about voting to leave the EU then this may turn out to be a shrewd manoeuvre.
Paul Taggart, Professor of Politics, University of Sussex
I think Cameron’s decision to let ministers have a free vote is a matter of internal party management (as indeed, I would suggest the commitment to hold a referendum is also). He has little choice as the party is so fundamentally divided over Europe. I think he has one eye to the period after referendum and he needs to avoid a situation of all-out war (in the case of vote to remain) and by allowing ministers to have a free vote he is, in effect, giving as much opportunity for the Eurosceptic case to be made as he can.
I do not think the decision will really impact either side of the campaign as much as we might expect. We already know who the Eurosceptics are and what their case is, so ‘ungagging’ them will not change the real debate in my view. The decision to allow a free vote has also been trailled by Labour in its recent decision to have the decision to bomb Syria as a free vote. In a sense you could say that the two major parties in British politics are currently in a situation where they have adopted a form of plebiscitary politics rather than more traditional party politics mode.
Victoria Honeyman, Lecturer in Politics, POLIS, University of Leeds
Allowing cabinet ministers a free vote of conscience was really essential. On big issues such as this, cabinet collective responsibility is often abandoned, it was in the 1975 referendum while Wilson was Prime Minister. Otherwise, on such key issues some individuals would feel the need to resign if they could not speak freely. Therefore it is often better for government, on such issues, to allow Cabinet ministers freedom rather than risk them resigning or speaking against a collective cabinet decision which might force a sacking. I am not sure that this decision necessarily benefits either camp disproportionately but it will ensure that the conservative party don’t irrevocably split on this issue, which was one of the key motivating factors for the referendum being held in the first place.
Simon Usherwood, Associate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey
A free vote means that Cameron does not damage the unity of his Cabinet, since he won’t have to sack anyone who doesn’t follow his line. Potentially it also means that he can build a stronger centrist coalition with politicians from other parties, by saying it’s not party political (this is what happened in 1975). The cost is that he’ll have some senior colleagues arguing against him: in some cases that will be made worse if they think they can defeat him in the referendum and then use that to take control of the party for the 2020 general election.
I think he had to do it, otherwise he would have faced at least a handful of resignations. I doubt very much whether it will make much difference – certainly to the Leave side, anyway. If anything, it will prevent them from arguing that Cameron is being unfair and trying to silence people, so it may well end up doing him more good than harm!