An increasingly fraught battle within a proud political party. Senior members of the same party trading personal insults publicly on a daily basis. And a high risk that the eventual outcome of this war could have a discernible impact on the long term future of that party, whatever the outcome of the current contest.
I’m talking about the tense contest for the Republican Presidential nomination, after Donald Trump consolidated his shock lead after the Super Tuesday vote. However, this could just as easily relate to the European Referendum campaign in the UK with voters treated to the unedifying sight of fellow Conservative Cabinet members ripping chunks out of each other on the airwaves. Work and Pensions Secretary and senior “outer” Iain Duncan Smith has this week urged his opponents (including the Prime Minister) to “play the ball, not the person”, noting the similarities between the current disagreements and the conflicts over the Maastricht Treaty which ripped the Conservative Party apart in the 1990s.
The tensions have been heightened further by guidance from Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood limiting the briefings that Ministers in the Leave camp can receive from civil servants during the campaign. Sir Jeremy gave oral evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee of the House of Commons yesterday on this subject, arguing that his guidance had been misinterpreted, and labelling accusations that dissenting Ministers won’t get to see key documents as conjecture. However, Sir Jeremy’s evidence mirrored his assertion to the Public Accounts Committee on Monday that he has a “constitutional duty” to uphold the government’s official position – that Britain should remain in the EU. Committee Chair Bernard Jenkin has since said he was ‘’reassured’’ by Sir Jeremy’s evidence. Case closed, for now.
The immediate conclusion of the referendum campaign will be a momentous decision by voters either to remain in or leave the EU, potentially resulting in an acrimonious negotiation with other member states. One has to ask how acrimonious the discussions within the Conservative Party will be post- 23 June. With six members of the Cabinet campaigning for Brexit along with a handful of other ministers, a large number of backbenchers, and a majority of the grassroots, and the exchanges becoming increasingly personal, it is difficult to see these warring titans kissing and making up after the referendum, whatever the result.