Collective Responsibility and the EU Referendum

09/06/2015 11:34 BST | Updated 09/06/2016 10:59 BST

David Cameron announced that all government ministers - cabinet members, ministers of state, and, in fact, any Tory MP trying to climb the greasy pole to power - would have to support the 'Yes' campaign in the 2017 referendum on EU membership. This has suddenly been replayed as the media misinterpreting what he had said, as he tries to deny having said this. Here I am reminded of Jim Hacker, from the tv series Yes, Prime Minister, when asked if he was being indecisive? The response was 'No, I just can't make up my mind'. It almost appears as if David Cameron is trying to outdo the fiction.

Yet there is a very important point here. Should collective responsibility be suspended for the referendum?

The convention of collective responsibility is simple. All members of government must toe the government line. Failure to do so means resignation or sacking. Thus, David Cameron was very clear. Collective responsibility will be invoked on the referendum. He will have re-negotiated the deal and he expects all government ministers to support him. Failure to do so will result in a sacking. In this, Cameron sounds almost 'Blairite'.

But should collective responsibility be invoked in a referendum? David Cameron has been very clear about the importance of consulting 'the people' on this issue. 'The people' will decide Britain's future relationship with the EU. By invoking collective responsibility, does this mean his government are not part of 'the people'?

The last time there was a referendum on membership of the then-European Economic Community was in 1975. The Prime Minister at that time, Harold Wilson, suspended collective responsibility on this issue. If his ministers wanted to campaign for either side, then they were free to do so. There was one clear caveat. Whatever the result, all members had to abide by it!

There are remarkable similarities here. Wilson, like Cameron today, had a very small government majority, and a party which was hugely divided on the issue of membership of the EEC. For Wilson, suspending cabinet responsibility was a 'no-brainer'. The plan was to lance a boil that was festering in the party. Thus Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Jim Callaghan could all campaign for a 'Yes' vote, while Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Michael Foot could all campaign for a 'No' vote.

By invoking collective responsibility on the referendum, David Cameron may believe he is asserting his authority within the Conservative Party while he is in a position of strength having just won a general election victory. But in doing so, he places a number of cabinet members in a rather invidious position. How will Iain Duncan Smith, Philip Hammond or John Whittingdale, to name but three, react to being forced to support the 'Yes' vote? Will they each place party loyalty above their position on a particular issue to which they are so attached? To do so may undermine their electoral credibility, not to mention their political credibility. Resignation means loss of status, and end of a ministerial career, on a point of principle.

As ever, it seems, on an issue to do with Europe, David Cameron has opened his mouth prior to engaging his brain. Or maybe the plan is to force all of the other parties into the same invidious position. One of the reasons why the Labour Party did so badly in Scotland in the general election was over the Scottish independence referendum. Labour campaigned to remain in the Union, alongside the Tories. And that is how they were perceived - supporting the enemy; backing the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government. The SNP want the UK to remain a member of the EU. This means they will have to openly support the David Cameron government. During the election campaign, Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, was very clear. Her party would never do anything to keep the Tories in power. In campaigning for a 'Yes' vote, she will be portrayed as doing so, and this will be used against her party at a later date. The same will apply to all parties in the UK; they will be portrayed as backing the current regime. The only party which may gain long term mileage out of this is UKIP, who will be campaigning vigorously for a 'No' vote. Unless, of course, each of these other parties - Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru - suspend collectivity on this issue!

Imagine the position: the Conservative Government is invoking collective responsibility during a referendum i.e. compelling all members to campaign in a certain way (although there is at least a secret ballot), while all other parties tell their elected members to act and vote according to their consciences, but to accept the final outcome. Of course, the SNP may demand another independence referendum if there is a 'No' vote across the UK, especially if Scotland has a majority voting 'Yes'. There may also be similar outcomes in Northern Ireland and Wales. How will such results play out? Goodness only knows.

For now, David Cameron appears to have created another problem for himself. The invoking of collective responsibility should have no place in a referendum. A referendum is where 'the people' make the basic determining decision. Even the members of David Cameron's government are part of 'the people'. Or, maybe, no one has told him.