Watching Tories fight like rats in a sack sometimes seems like a favourite national pastime. Throughout the long weeks of this referendum campaign, too many current and former Conservative politicians have been queuing up to help provide this spectacle. “Blue on blue” abuse has included colleagues being accused of everything from dishonesty to stupidity; from not caring about the unemployed to consorting with terrorists.
There is so much wrong with this approach that it is hard to know where to begin. First of all, it is ineffective. Anyone with experience of politics knows how quickly personal attacks and negativity turn people off a campaign. If it starts to look like it’s all about us: the public, quite rightly, isn’t very interested. The whole point of politics in a democracy is that it is all about the people, not those who are temporarily entrusted with the task of government. Surely in a referendum with the future of our democracy at its heart, that is truer than ever?
Secondly, public in-fighting is hugely damaging to the interests of the Conservative Party and therefore – while the party is in office – to the government of our country. Those who have stepped into the ring to attack their colleagues surely cannot imagine that it will make it easier to heal the wounds when the referendum is over. It is so much easier to overlook disagreements over policy than it is to disregard attacks on one’s character or integrity.
Today’s politicians were all raised on the truism that the public doesn’t vote for divided parties. Conservatives in particular still bear the scars of the visceral battles fought over the Maastricht Treaty. But there is a paradox: the great advantage of our “first past the post” electoral system is that coalitions are formed within parties. To be an election-winning party, it is necessary to be a broad church. The fact that the Conservative Party can accommodate John Redwood and Ken Clarke is not just an asset – it is an electoral necessity.
On an issue of immense importance to the country there is certainly no surprise in the fact that we have the same spectrum of opinion as the people whom we represent. If anything, it is Labour that should worry that, with a few honourable exceptions, it is so far out of sympathy with a very large part of its traditional support around the country.
So we should make no apology for the fact that we have passionate disagreements within our party. So how can we reconcile this public aversion to disunity with a fundamental difference of opinion on the greatest matter of principle? Most importantly, all Conservatives who are engaged in this debate in the remaining days should strain every sinew to rediscover a habit of courtesy and respect. This doesn’t just mean avoiding offensive language, it also means respecting the motives of our opponents. The Remainers should accept that those of us who want Brexit really believe that our long traditions of democracy, liberty and the rule of law are threatened by our gradual absorption in a political union that we never wanted to join. Similarly, we Brexiteers should accept that the Remain camp is genuinely concerned that economic growth might be slower outside the EU.
The case that is put may sometimes be shrill or extreme but if we don’t accept that the driving force behind it is a genuine desire to serve the public good, it will be impossible for us to work together after June 23. When the gunsmoke clears, there will still be a job to be done, a government to be run and elections to be won. The winning team must be magnanimous in victory; the losing side dignified in defeat.
Even if the campaign has been marred by personal digs on the national stage, recent weeks have seen hundreds of thousands of people attending public meetings and debates the length and breadth of Britain. The British people have risen to the referendum challenge better than many national politicians. In the days ahead we must live up to the standard that the voters have set.
George Osborne's sad misjudgment
• Telegraph View
15 June 2016 • 10:00pm
British voters are a sensible lot and do not appreciate hysterical politicians treating them like fools. So it is likely that yesterday’s warning from George Osborne of a punishingly severe Budget in the event of Brexit will be taken with a large fistful of salt. The Chancellor’s motivations are clear. For a fortnight the Leave campaign has focused the referendum debate on immigration. For a fortnight it has prospered mightily in the polls. The Remain camp is desperate to return to its favoured battleground of the economy and, it seems, will employ almost any tactics to do so. Yet even these strong-arm measures are destined to fail, as our story today on Theresa May’s call for new restrictions on EU migrants underlines. Doubtless Mr Osborne hoped to sow some seeds of doubt in the minds of voters who are increasingly open to voting next week to leave the European Union. But that very shift in public opinion should have made the Chancellor reconsider, for it suggests an electorate increasingly exasperated with the Remain campaign’s apocalyptic warnings. And if Remain nonetheless wins next week, the destructive tactics used will mean that victory comes at a very high cost to the victors. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr Osborne’s misjudgement is a sign of panic among Remain leaders who can no longer see beyond next week’s poll. Such myopia is regrettable in the extreme, since Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron are not just referendum campaigners but leading members of a Conservative Government barely one year into a five-year term.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there is much for that Government to do, but their conduct during the campaign will make it much harder for them to do that work: witness the extraordinary spectacle of 65 Conservative MPs publicly pledging to reject a Conservative Chancellor’s Brexit Budget, and warning that Mr Osborne’s position could soon become “untenable”.
Fortunately for the party and the country, some Conservatives have cooler heads. Graham Brady of the 1922 Committee of MPs today writes sensibly on these pages about the need for Tories on both sides of the referendum to respect one another’s integrity, for fear that it will be “impossible” to work together after the vote. For the good of the Conservative Party, and the country which it will continue to govern for four more years after next Thursday, his words must be heeded.