Strange days in politics. On the one hand, Jeremy Corbyn was supposed (or so we were led to believe) to be sacking Hilary Benn on the basis he rebelled against his leader during a free vote on whether a handful of British planes should occasionally bomb Daesh in Syria. On the other, we have the sight of a prime minister, suspending collective responsibility within the government, allowing ministers to campaign during the coming referendum either for or against staying within the European Union. Simultaneously, therefore, the government is abandoning any prospect of having a coherent EU policy ahead of a vote.
There is no doubt Corbyn’s handling of the reshuffle has been shambolic at best but in the grand scheme of things it is insignificant. David Cameron’s decision, however, has huge ramifications and he is running the very serious risk of placing himself in the unenviable position of being the prime minister who leads Britain out of the EU.
In 2006, Mr Cameron bemoaned how, while ‘parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life, [the Conservative Party was] banging on about Europe’. Indeed, it has been the dominating item of discussion and division within the Tory Party now for more than 25 years. Cameron doesn’t like to admit it, but he didn’t want to hold a referendum on the matter at all. It was just the latest in a series of concessions offered to Eurosceptics within his own party to try and keep them vaguely disciplined and on-side. Cameron’s desire to reform the EU may be genuine – and, my word, a rather huge amount of reform is surely necessary – but he certainly doesn’t want Britain to leave the organisation.
The latest concession, however, means that Cameron's authority has been seriously dented - and probably not just on the EU either; ministers will surely be tempted to test the boundaries of collective responsibility on other matters too.
The Prime Minster will return from Europe, claiming to have successfully negotiated a new deal; he will recommend that his government, the opposition and voters should choose to tick the box that will keep Britain in the EU. No new deal, though, no matter how overarching and comprehensive, will satisfy the Eurosceptics within his own party - and we shall witness the spectacle of some of Cameron's ministers campaigning to leave the EU. The government will not have an agreed vision for the future of the country.
Speaking to the World at One, Ken Clarke, a veteran EU loyalist, compared Cameron’s position to that of John Major’s during his Maastricht battles in the 1990s.
‘It is just like John Major, who tried to put people in the cabinet to get them to be more loyal, found that it didn’t work, they all briefed against him and were openly disloyal…. David probably has been forced into it because one or two of them (ministers) are obviously already briefing the newspapers and have been for some time.’
Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that the polls currently indicate the Brexit campaign is losing. And, as we saw with the Scottish in/out referendum, voters are more likely to stick with the status quo rather than feel beguiled by the promise of drastic - but uncertain - change.
But, as pollsters and pundits saw at the General Election last year, predicting the minds of voters is especially hard at the moment. The Guardian recently reported that from the last 21 polls, 13 showed remaining in the EU in the lead, four gave quitting the EU a lead and four were tied. But, such is the overwhelming disenchantment with the major parties, voting against their wishes is terribly fashionable. It remains too close to call.
So, yes, Corbyn's discomfort is probably worth a brief click of the tongue at the wonder of it all, but ultimately, whatever happens to this shadow cabinet, the Right Honourable Mr Benn and others, it will be a mainly forgotten episode, perhaps an unfortunate footnote in a distressing time for the Labour Party. What David Cameron does in the coming weeks and months will have much more momentous consequences. What his decisions mean for Britain's membership of the European Union and, indeed, the long term future of the United Kingdom itself - as a vote to leave the EU may well trigger the SNP to force another Scottish independence referendum - has no chance of being forgotten whatsoever.