This weekend’s public spat between David Cameron and Penny Mordaunt about whether Britain can stop the accession of new countries such as Turkey into the European Union looks like just another row in the referendum campaign. Every day one figure on one side makes a claim that riles the other side, and a war of press releases and broadcast interviews ensues. But this particular row doesn’t just tell us a lot about where the two camps are in the campaign, but also makes a considerable difference both to the campaign and to the aftermath of the vote.
Firstly, it is clear that the Tory party is going to take a long time to repair after this vote. The Prime Minister has accused one of his own ministers of being ‘absolutely wrong’: will he then be able to sack her after the referendum for ‘getting things as straightforward as this wrong’, or will he have to accept that all is fair in love and war? Many pro-Leave MPs think that his behaviour in the referendum means that he will have to accept anything that his opponents throw at him as fair game. But how can a Prime Minister fully trust a minister who he says has been spreading incorrect information?
Similarly, can he really trust Priti Patel, who has infuriated colleagues during this campaign by making forays into domestic issues such as school places on which she knows her colleagues feel politically vulnerable? And does he have a choice? If Cameron carries out a revenge reshuffle, he could stamp his authority on his ministers – or he could further enrage his backbenchers and struggle to pass any of the important social justice reforms that he wants to get on with after the referendum. Trust, once lost, is very difficult to win back.
In terms of the campaign, Mordaunt’s comments show that both sides have reached the stage where they’re basically prepared to say anything. Douglas Murray has a very amusing run-down of some of the worst predictions from the past week that show that both Leave and Remain are guilty of making warnings about anything, however plausible or relevant. Perhaps this will frighten voters into backing one side or the other – or perhaps it will push turnout down as people conclude that they just cannot tell who is telling the truth and that they can’t make a choice.