There are moments when one wonders whether one is seeing and hearing the same things as others. For me such a moment occurred a fortnight ago when reading The Spectator’s weekly column by our political editor, James Forsyth. James is exceptionally well plugged in to the world of Westminster, but — beyond that — a person of cool and sensitive judgment, so I read what he writes with attention.
He said this: ‘[The Prime Minister] is campaigning with no thought for the feelings of those in the party who disagree with him. It is one thing for a leader to disagree with close to half of his MPs and most of his activists, but quite another not to do it respectfully.’
And for the first time in my life I had literally no idea what James was on about.
First, then, the evidence. Except there isn’t any. Ever since the pre-campaign campaign for our EU referendum began, I’ve been listening carefully to what David Cameron has been saying and the tone in which he’s been saying it. Study his remarks. They are notable for the care he’s been taking not to be personal about leading Leave campaigners, and not to question their good faith.
I can find only one partial exception to that. Without naming names, Mr Cameron did say he had complete respect for Leave campaigners whose objections to Britain’s EU membership had been well-known and long-standing. This may be taken at face value: opposition to EU membership has a long and honourable tradition at Westminster and it is impossible not to acknowledge the sincerity and tenacity of many of the leading voices. But when Cameron added that he was not standing for re-election it was fair to guess (as some commentators did) that he had Boris Johnson in his sights. Mr Johnson had just surprised many of us by coming out for Leave. Cameron meant (it was suggested) to imply that Mr Johnson was behaving opportunistically.
I dare say the PM did mean that to be read into his remark. It was a fair comment on a matter of public interest but should arguably have been left to others to make.
But that’s it. I can find no other example of Cameron going for the man rather than the argument. He had to say something about Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation, and saying he was ‘puzzled and disappointed’ struck me as mild. This, remember, was a resignation in which Mr Duncan Smith himself had criticised a budget that was ‘deeply unfair’ and called it evidence that when the Chancellor and Prime Minister said we were ‘all in this together’, that was not true.
How about George Osborne? Did James Forsyth mean to include the Chancellor in his strictures? So far as I know, all Mr Osborne has done is fiercely attack the economic case for leaving, describing it as self-harm. This is what he believes: it is the gravamen of his case.
So let us now look at how leading Leavers have comported themselves. IDS has said the Remain campaign has been characterised by ‘spin, smears and threats’ and ‘bully-ing opponents… acrimonious conduct… desperate and unsubstantiated claims’. Cameron’s renegotiation package he described as a ‘dodgy dossier’. Meanwhile Michael Gove has accused the Prime Minister and Chancellor of treating the public ‘like children’ who need to be ‘frightened into obedience’, called the government’s Remain leaflet a ‘one-sided piece of propaganda’ and said it’s inappropriate that public money should be spent distributing it.
But remaining in the EU is government policy. Mr Gove would not have composed a leaflet arguing for (say) his academisation programme that was designed to do other than promote government policy.
In the past week, Owen Paterson has described the PM’s Remain campaign as being ‘a bit like going back to the Civil War, when Charles I lost touch with the counties’. Liam Fox has said that Britain cannot afford to be ‘conned by Cameron’s “renegotiation” deal’ and suggested we’ve been ‘stitched up’ and the ‘whole renegotiation’ was a ‘sham from start to finish’. Bernard Jenkin has said that ‘Everything is dictated from the top for short-term political advantage.’ And Boris Johnson has described the renegotiation as achieving ‘two-thirds of diddly squat’.
I will not go on. Avid Leavers will retort that all these comments are true. They may be. But they also, almost without exception and often quite explicitly and in colourful language, impugn the integrity and the good faith of David Cameron, George Osborne, or both. How can those who dish out such insults and allegations, and seek in such ways to smear the reputation and question the goodwill of Cameron and Osborne, then complain that they are being treated disrespectfully by the Prime Minister?
In the comments section beneath my Times columns I’ve noticed a pattern among Ukip supporters and Brexit Tories. They appear to think that because the PM agreed to let those opposed to the government’s EU policy speak out, he should therefore be some kind of neutral observer, or umpire, in the subsequent debate. When he takes his own side, this appears to throw them into a rage. When he does so vigorously, they scream at him for disrespecting them. My own respect for James Forsyth leads me to believe that he must be describing how the Leave Tories actually feel, rather than endorsing their opinion as reasonable or accurate.
For this is indeed how they feel. Which leads me to my closing question. Does being a Leave supporter implant in an individual the disposition to believe they are being cheated and bullied? Or does being the type of person disposed to feel cheated and bullied lead you to be a Leave supporter?
I suspect it’s the latter. If so, this article is just spitting into the wind, and what’s needed is not argument but psychotherapy. And yes, darlings, before you yelp, let me merrily concede: that last remark was intended to give offence. You’re being disrespected and bullied. Diddums.