Originally, the campaigning around the European Union (EU) referendum was envisaged as being a contained and measured affair conducted among colleagues, and always with a view to coming together after to continue the governing mission. It now seems this was wishful thinking.
The campaign, on the Conservative side in particular, has degenerated to a point where, among many incidents, serving ministers are claiming that the NHS is underfunded because of freedom of movement and the National Living Wage will encourage immigration; and, in some quarters, even accusing prime minister David Cameron of using £9 million of public funds to send an EU ‘facts’ leaflet to every household to distract from coverage of his tax affairs.
It is likely that in the run-up to June 23 this will only get worse, and the ability to come together on June 24 is put in serious jeopardy. Will the PM, when he sits down for his next reshuffle, really forget the attacks he received from his own ministers? And if the ‘out’ campaign lose, will they just shrug their shoulders and forget the perceived unfairness of the government’s campaigning? It’s going to be tough.
But the ‘we won’t forget’ mantra has the potential to reverberate and affect policy more broadly, and it’s here that it becomes interesting for the travel industry. One of the first major decisions likely to be taken forward post-May elections and June’s referendum is around airport capacity. The government has been reticent to commit to a specific date for the decision (following its review of air quality issues, of course) but we have heard rumours from well-placed sources that the summer is likely. How is the EU referendum fallout going to impact this?
Consider Zac Goldsmith and his stock with the government. He is potentially the biggest political reason the airport decision was delayed, as having the putative Conservative mayoral candidate at loggerheads with the Conservative government over Heathrow would scupper the chances of holding on to the mayoralty. Post-election and having come out for ‘out’, will he still be able to twist the PM’s arm or will he be irrelevant to a leader weary of compromise with people who can never be pleased?
Or if we do decide to leave, will European air quality standards that have been held up as an inviolable red line by Heathrow’s opponents still hold as much sway?
Boris Johnson has attracted genuine anger from within No 10 with his ‘out’ support, interpreted as a careerist challenge to Cameron. If an ‘in’ vote is secured, how much sway will his opposition to Heathrow have with a PM and Chancellor who he has openly defied?
Look, for instance, at the West Country caucus of MPs, led by the ardent ‘Brexiteer’ Liam Fox MP, who have been particularly vocal in their demands that the government acts on Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission Report and expand the hub. We have been told that they have taken umbrage at Heathrow having publicly come out in favour of ‘in’ and suggested that in response they may be less active in support of the airport’s campaign. That an infrastructure project of national importance (and to their region) would be sacrificed in such a way is nothing short of remarkable and shows the depth of passion among those engaged in the referendum fight.
In lobbying, the technical term for this is ‘an absolute mess’, and it is going to take some doing to pick up all these pieces and focus the Conservative Party on governing again.