Anyone who claims to speak with any certainty about the next six months in British affairs has either invented a time machine or is pretending. While I understand well that making a case – backed up by evidence and analysis – is the job of those of us who comment rather than report (an important distinction) on the Westminster carnival, firm judgements about what is about to happen are surely best avoided in the midst of this, the craziest domestic political story of the modern era. In such a context, claims that David Cameron will definitely have to do this or that the day after the vote are broadly useless. It mostly depends on things that haven’t happened yet.
I stress that the most likely outcome, because of the small c conservatism of the UK electorate, is an eventual win for Remain and Cameron’s survival until 2018-2019 after a messy and exciting campaign. Janan Ganesh, the FT columnist, wrote eloquently this week of the excessive excitement around the BoGo phenomenon (Boris and Michael Gove coming out for Leave) and the way in which their influence on voters is being overstated. The political class is full of professional hysterics, he says.
He has a point, of course, in that the news cycle and social media, the fight for market share and the quest for novelty have in the last decade made the whole business spin ever faster, often to the bewilderment and understandable disgust of people outside the media. On the night, I was one of those who fell for the erroneous idea that Cameron’s defeat on Syria was a big deal that eroded his authority, a view held by plenty of MPs when it happened, but Cameron handled it so calmly that within hours it was as though it had never happened.
But sometimes a story is exciting not just because it is a cracking short term story. It may have important longer term implications, as in 1975 and the European referendum. Incidentally, if you haven’t watched Michael Cockerell’s magnificent short film on this for Newsnight this week I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Were journalists wrong then to think the referendum in 1975 was dramatic and exciting? It was a hell of a story and a lot was at stake. Indeed, although people weren’t to know it, the roots of much that followed in the next four decades lay in that contest, in the Thatcher leadership coup of the same year, in the split in Labour, in the role of Tony Benn in fostering Euroscepticism and in the eventual fracture in the early 1990s in a Tory tribe torn by the internal contradictions inherent in Thatcherism. Two components of the Thatcher world view – open, global markets and cooperation which erode sovereignty, and the integrity of the self-governing nation state – were at odds after the very British creation of the Single Market in the 1980s. The Tories still can’t resolve the contradiction, although they are about to have a good go.
The latest excitement seems to be the question of whether David Cameron will have to resign if he loses the EU referendum. I don’t know; you don’t know; and even Cameron doesn’t know. But here are a few observations:
- Even if Cameron wins the referendum – albeit narrowly – it seems to be the view of some Tory MPs that he will be removed straight away anyway. It is difficult to tell how serious they are, although it is worth remembering that there has long been a group of perhaps 30-40 Tory MPs who want him gone and will take any excuse. There is a degree of wish fulfilment involved, and a feedback loop involving commentators who can’t stand him for whatever reason, but that is very different from a group of more than 100 or 150 actually orchestrating his removal. I accept that this would be the Tory party operating in crisis mode, however. So all manner of madness is possible.
- Any MPs who are Outers going around now talking about removing Cameron after Leave need their heads examined. Cameron may have flaws (who doesn’t?) but he is popular among moderate Tory voters and respected beyond that if you ignore Twitter. Suggest to them that Out definitely means the end of Cameron and I doubt it will do the Out side much good among non-obsessive Tory voters.
- Will the country really be in the mood for a self-indulgent Tory leadership contest in the event of an Out vote? I doubt it. Isn’t the mood more likely to be: blimey, that’s a bit of a shocker, someone steady the ship, can I still go on holiday to Spain and will my passport work? Isn’t it possible to imagine Cameron pledging to stay on and handle the initial emergency talks, the Article 50 exit and then the shift to a trading relationship?
- The idea of him still being there of course drives UKIP supporters completely off their collective trolly. But they’re a small minority who hate him even more than those 30-40 Tory MPs. The office of Prime Minister and the need for an element of continuity may make all the ominous predictions about what will happen look a bit silly this summer. Parts of the press would also go bananas, but that’s never worried Cameron.
- Also, watch the tensions in the SNP. Many Nationalists say they want to use a Leave verdict as an excuse for an immediate Scottish referendum on independence. There’s a lot of Scottish political class delusion involved, with every party and every approved “respectable” person there saying Scotland will be appalled to be outside the EU. This could rapidly fall apart if tested in a second referendum. After a Leave the EU vote will Scottish voters really want to embark on difficult negotiations to break up the UK and join the Euro instead with the oil price where it is?
- Back to Cameron. What if he wins big? Then he will have held together two unions – the UK and the EU – while doing what was deemed highly unlikely, restoring the Tories to power with an overall majority. In the process he will have conned and then destroyed the Liberals, and helped turn Labour into a smoking ruin. Any Tory MP trying to get him fired at that point will sound as though they have gone round the bend. They’ll be mocked mercilessly. You might not like the thought that the Tory leader emerges from this stronger, but it remains one of the potential outcomes.
- That’s enough EU referendum for now.