In the new year the EU referendum battle will heat up, and it seems the Conservative party are already starting to shuffle things around in preparation. Stephen Gilbert, the party’s current deputy chairman, has today announced that he is standing down from this position.
When Gilbert originally became deputy chairman, it was agreed that he could also hold non-executive roles with other groups. In November, he took up a part-time position at Populus, the official polling company for the main campaign to keep Britain in the EU, Britain Stronger in Europe (BSIE). While this position was in accordance with Conservative party rules, the move infuriated plenty of Tory Eurosceptics, who felt it undermined the party’s commitment to remain neutral during the referendum. Steve Baker MP, Co-Chairman of Conservatives for Britain, wrote to Lord Feldman in November expressing his concerns that Gilbert’s role – along with a number of other pro-EU campaign positions held by Tory officials – was not in accordance with the official policy of neutrality.
It would seem Gilbert has taken note: his move, which is said to be his own decision out of ‘respect’ for the party, appears to have been taken to ensure CCHQ can preserve this commitment. Given the stepping up of the campaign that will inevitably happen in 2016, it’s likely that Gilbert’s departure is meant to quell rumbles of discontent within the party. There’s a growing sense that the party leadership is not honouring the spirit of the neutrality pledge, so it’s unsurprising that things are starting to be reordered to help ease Eurosceptic minds.
Gilbert is one of the party’s most experienced campaigners, and played a key role in the 2015 campaign. It’s unlikely that Number 10 will want to see him gone for too long – and a party insider suggests that he will probably return to CCHQ once the referendum is finished.