Political commentators were quite surprised when David Cameron decided to put himself at the centre of the campaign to renegotiate the UK's membership of the European Union.
This wasn't a friendly and meaningless summit where the goals and possible achievements are wrangled over months in advance with a friendly communique declaring victory for all sides is issued at the end regardless of what was achieved. It wasn't the usual grandstanding jolly boys outing for heads of state to get positive PR headlines and a few days break from tedious domestic politics.
This was something serious. Something that an advisor might describe as 'Courageous'.
- No guarantee of any concrete result, despite the negotiators being sent in advance to asses the ground.
- No guarantee of consensus from all the other EU members. Very few allies at any discussions. The ever present unwillingness of the EU to ever concede a loss of its powers. Plus, a hostile home media very suspicious of the actions of the PM in going there at all.
Usually the leader would send a trusty subordinate to fight on his behalf. William Hague would have been just the man if he was still in post. Dependable. Reliable. Competent. Popular among colleagues. Luckily, the PM had another such man to send instead. Philip Hammond, a key Remain man, and Foreign Secretary, he seemed prefect for the role. He would have done as asked. He is very capable. When the Heads of State part came around, the PM could have flown over for the high profile, do or die moment. And to take the glory for the success in any negotiations.
Cameron could also have avoided some of the blame for the resulting minor concessions that were eventually won. The 'thin gruel' could have been laid at Hammy's door. So avoiding the full taint of failure. The renegotiation concessions, much trumpeted before the event as a turning point in the UK's relationship with the European Union, turned out to be so feeble that they have not been mentioned by the Remain campaign since their announcement.
Fast forward to the Remain campaign and the lessons of 1975.
Wilson did not make himself the main leader for remain. He was 'pro remain' but was wise enough to be looking at the post referendum situation on his already fractious party. Wilson allowed MPs to campaign as they wished. That allowed him to return some of the big beasts of the Leave campaign to his own small majority party, with minimal fuss. At the time Tony Benn and Michael Foot were the Gove and Johnson of the day. Well known, popular figures among party members or the public.
The lessons of 2014 Scottish Referendum should have been heeded too. The Labour party that had been previously been dominant in Scottish politics for decades, had lost ground, and was looking to re-establish its control, was wiped out in the post referendum election. Completely wiped out. No signs of any recovery at all. The punishment some say, for siding with the Tory enemy over the referendum.
Why Cameron has decided to put himself at the very centre of only one wing of his party is a mystery. He may have chosen the bigger wing, for reasons that he absolubtely believes in, but that will not help him with the aftermath of a Remain victory. He has deliberately chosen to use all the power of the government. Of the civil service. Of the opposition parties and of big business to campaign for one side, with himself, and his Chancellor as the front men for that side.
David Cameron is not a stupid man. He knows all the reasons for not doing what he done.
So, does he believe he has Blair like powers of persuasion that will allow him to soothe hurt feeling and allow reconstruction after the civil war?
Does he believe that the vote was going to be so close that only his own intervention, with all the force of his personality and gravitas as leader was the only way to bring victory to Remain? And the consequences of those actions would just have to be dealt with later once victory was assured.
Or does he think, what the hell..I'm going in one or two years anyway. A new leader can sort all of this mess out much easier than I could anyway. I'm off..
Tory Remainers are probably backing that the labour party is in such a mess that it doesn't matter too much what they do to themselves. They have plenty of time, with the fixed term act, to rebuild a consensus. And the woeful Corbyn isn't remotely interested in short term political point scoring and a long term undermining strategy anyway.
The flaw in all of that is it is likely to get a lot more fractious before it gets less. That the economy is bound to tip before the next election so damaging the one favourable Tory constant since 2010, economic management. And that Corbyn is unlikely to be leader for 2020.
Labour MPs will not allow another leader to ruin their best chance of power since 2010. A divided, damaged, floundering Tory party, without the full backing of its usually supportive media is an easy target for any half decent opposition leader.
To imagine Labour will just blithely continue not to have one is wishful thinking.