If Britain votes to leave the EU, David Cameron will be gone within weeks. No ifs, no buts: he’s out on his ear. Both politics and principle will demand it.
Salmond has many flaws, but he is one of the most astute political wargamers in these islands. He told the Commons yesterday: ‘I do not believe the Prime Minister, and I don’t think a majority of the public in his party, and certainly not of the country, believes him when he says he would sail on in office with a negative vote to negotiate out of the European Union after telling people it was essential to the security and prosperity of the country, as he put it last week, for us to be in it.’
Bang on. If, after a lacerating three-month battle, Cameron finds himself on the losing side, he will have lost his licence and his moral authority to govern. Remember: it was his choice to hold a referendum on a matter of the utmost constitutional importance; it was his choice to set targets for a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU that were unrealistically ambitious; it was his choice to argue for Remain; and he did it in the full knowledge that it would split his party, his government and the country down the middle.
You can’t come out the other side of all that as a loser and blithely carry on as if it was all just a Bobby-Ewing-in-the-shower moment. Even for those of us who think Cameron has been a decent prime minister, that would be taking the Bullingdon born-to-rule attitude slightly too far. And it’s not as if he can change the subject by declaring war on France.
Salmond brings personal insight, of course.
He resigned as Scotland’s First Minister after losing 2014’s independence referendum. At the time, his departure was a shock. There was no real feeling that he should go – the vote had been called by Westminster, not Holyrood; the Yes campaign had been a brilliant success, taking support from 30 per cent in the polls to 45 per cent on the day; the SNP emerged from its loss more popular than ever. Only in hindsight is it obvious that it was a necessary decision. Salmond had a brilliant and well-liked deputy waiting to take over, his brand of hyper-aggressive, bullying nationalism had run its course, and the move recharged a government battery that was running flat after seven years. And, let’s say it again: he got beat on the only issue he really cares about.
If it was necessary for Salmond to step down, Cameron’s situation in the event of Brexit will be that with large, clanging bells on. It would be a huge personal humiliation – on a human level, it will knock the stuffing out of him. He will irreparably have fallen out with many of his colleagues (just wait), and they won’t fancy letting him take his revenge by continuing to lord it over them. He will be massively diminished in the eyes of the electorate. He would go to Brussels to negotiate Britain’s departure as an empty suit – you can imagine the embarrassed smiles and sympathetic grimaces and, let’s be honest, the hostility. He would find himself facing a second referendum on Scottish independence, which he would probably lose. It’s notable that it’s usually the Brexiteers who insist he could carry on – they would, wouldn’t they?
This stuff, referendums on who we are and who we want to be, matters. These are existential questions. And if you’re on the wrong side of the answer, you just can’t be in the top job. So it’s simple: Cameron had better win, or do one.