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The legacy of Bloomberg

The legacy of Bloomberg

This article first appeared in The Herald.

by Peter Duncan

It was all such a brilliant wheeze at the time. When faced with a looming general election, with prospects not looking brilliant, too often Prime Ministers look for short term solutions, happy to let the long term deal with itself. So it was with David Cameron 23rd of January in 2013.

The short term problem was one of a troublesome leaking of peripheral Conservative support to UKIP. The Nigel Farage message was attractive to a minority proportion of the electorate, but a significant proportion of Conservatives, and a large share of the votes he needed to win an election, however narrowly, in 2015. At times like these, big gestures are called for.

The “Bloomberg speech” promised an in/out referendum on Europe, the stuff of red meat to those who might otherwise be tempted by UKIP. And with one bound, the Prime Minister was apparently free. After all, negotiations for a minority administration would never support such a referendum, and a majority was hardly likely. Wasn’t it?

Fast forward to the current day, and that grand plan is not looking quite so brilliant. Yes, the 2015 election was won, but at what cost? Europe has always been a fundamental divider of opinion in the modern Conservative Party, and David Cameron had done well in keeping a lid on that fracture during his eight years of leadership up until that January morning three years ago.

That fracture across the Party is reflected round the cabinet table and across Government, although the PM hoped problems had been contained in the short term by allowing any minister to campaign to leave the EU against government policy. However, it’s clear now that the fissures are opening. Yes, Iain Duncan Smith’s startling resignation was clearly on a point of principle on welfare policy, but it made clear that the glue holding difficult relationships together has clearly been weakened by disagreement on the referendum. Spending negotiations with the Treasury are never easy, but dischord on Europe will have amplified the problem.

It’s another indication that relations between number 10 and those ministers campaigning for Brexit are deteriorating. Look behind the story involving Michael Gove and the Palace, or IDS and the budget, and the tensions are evident. Briefing and counter-briefing, the stakes are higher than ever, not least of all due to Gove’s position as a central figure in the run up to the leadership election that will replace David Cameron. A position confirmed by his seat at Osborne’s right hand during the Chancellor’s speech yesterday in the House of Commons.

As we ease into the last three months before the referendum, it’s clear now that there will be no Bloomberg dividend for Conservative strategists. If the UK votes to leave on 23rd June, despite protestations to the contrary, the PM will want to resign, even if some conciliators will want to persuade him otherwise. It will be have been the ultimate failure of the Bloomberg speech strategy. Betting the house on keeping the Party together, will have resulted in Brexit, which was never the Prime Minister’s intention. The contest to replace him will be one with an edge sharpened by four months of argument over Europe. The blade will be sharp, blood will be spilt.

Conversely, in the event of a vote to remain, still probably marginally the more likely outcome of the next three months, resentment and dissention will fester. Leave campaigners, including some in the cabinet, will bear the scars of battle. They cannot be expected to be quiet observers of a leadership election where remain campaigners will seek to share out the spoils of victory. In the ensuing and inevitable cabinet reshuffle, who can anticipate the consequences of a “night of the long knives” style clearout of Leave campaigning ministers, only some of whom will want to step down voluntarily.

What’s abundantly clear is that either outcome on the morning of the 24th of June will set in motion some highly unstable and damaging changes at the top of the Conservative Party, with meaningful change either way in how we are governed.

How ironic, although ultimately predictable, that the Bloomberg speech strategy which sought to draw the party together in 2013, may end up tearing it apart.