Two pieces in Monday’s press define the agony that is beginning to engulf the Tory party. The first, in the Financial Times newspaper, announced, “Big business backs Cameron’s push to keep Britain in the EU.” The second was Boris Johnson’s lengthy explanation in his Telegraph blog explaining why he opted to join the Leave campaign.
The Financial Times reported how David Cameron is mobilising the bosses of about half of Britain’s top 100 companies to sign a letter supporting Britain staying in the European Union (EU). Up to now big business has been wary about sticking its toes in the political water.
But now it is swinging behind Cameron. Surveys show that more than 60 percent of the members of the Engineering Employers Federation and the Institute of Directors back continued British EU membership.
Undoubtedly this is the settled position of the core of British capital, leaving aside a few hedge fund bosses and a lot of small fry. For the past six years Cameron has been struggling to reconcile the interests of British capitalism with the increasingly vehement anti-EU sentiment in the Tory party.
Which brings us to Johnson. His public agonising over whether or not to give way to Cameron’s pleas to back the Remain position was no doubt intended to maximise his own importance. Time will tell whether Johnson’s almost guileless opportunism will work to his advantage.
But it’s clear what guided his decision. His friend Tory MP Nicholas Soames tweeted on Sunday “I know he is NOT an outer.” Johnson is looking at the state of opinion inside the Tory party. According to a Guardian newspaper survey of Tory constituency party officials published on Sunday, “of almost 70 constituency parties contacted, only two reported a majority of party members are in favour of remaining in the European Union”.
Johnson is betting that taking a Leave stand will help him win the Tory leadership. This underlines that Cameron is, in effect, running against his own party’s rank and file.
This is more or less the same position that Labour prime minister Harold Wilson found himself during the last European referendum in June 1975. A Labour Party special conference actually backed a No vote on Britain’s membership of what was then still the Common Market.
Like Cameron now, Wilson allowed a minority of ministers who supported the No position to campaign against his own call for a Yes vote. These included very senior Labour cabinet ministers such as Michael Foot and Barbara Castle. Both Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, then at the height of their popular influence, campaigned for a No vote.
By comparison, the Tory cabinet ministers backing the Leave campaign are pretty low on the food chain. Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith are hardly popular fare—which is why Johnson’s decision is such a boost for their camp.
But the referendum looks like it will be a more close-run thing than 1975, when two thirds voted to stay in the Common Market. In 1975 big business funding for the Yes campaign drowned its opponents, which won’t be allowed this time. And a more or less united Tory party—headed, incidentally, by Margaret Thatcher, the Eurosceptics’ heroine—campaigned on the Yes side.
The Tory divisions should put Labour in pole position this time. Andrew Rawnsley highlighted in the Observer Cameron’s “deliciously ironic position of looking to Labour to save him from the wishes of much of his own party”. The shadow cabinet bullied Jeremy Corbyn, who voted No in 1975, into backing the Remain position, but he’s unlikely to campaign very wholeheartedly and the likes of Hilary Benn won’t generate much enthusiasm.
Socialist Worker is campaigning to Leave on a principled socialist and internationalist basis. Former Respect MP George Galloway gave an object lesson in how not to do this on Friday of last week, when he teamed up with Ukip leader Nigel Farage. He tried to justify this by comparing it to Benn and Powell in 1975. But Benn consistently refused to share a platform with Powell during the referendum campaign.
He understood that you can’t fight for socialism by allying with reactionaries.