One of my earliest political memories is of the political “assassination” of Margaret Thatcher. Then, as now, the Conservative Party was convulsed with the question of membership of the European Union. A group of senior cabinet members that were committed to the European project conspired together to bring her down, in order to ensure that the UK joined up to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (the precursor to the Euro).
Many of us will remember the consequences of that decision when, under the illustrious leadership of John Major, the UK was forced to quit the ERM having failed to control sterling through the spectacularly incompetent manipulation of interest rates.
The Conservative Party has never properly recovered from that debâcle – yet I wonder if, paradoxically, this Referendum process may just achieve that outcome, and establish a new consensus within the party structured around a consistent and principled Euroscepticism.
David Cameron’s time as party leader, surely, is coming to an end. The Conservative Party itself is significantly more Eurosceptic than the parliamentary party, and much more Eurosceptic than the Cabinet. What will cause Cameron the most problems, however, is the way in which he has conducted himself during the Referendum campaign.
This has two parts: first, the way in which elements of the Remain campaign seem to have benefited from the use of excessive government funds, such as through the distribution of leaflets advocating a Remain vote that were circulated to every household in advance of the Referendum. This – whilst doubtless considered legal by the government advisers – clearly constitutes a tilting of the playing field, allowing the Remain campaign to benefit from hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of extra advertising outside of the limits that apply to each of the campaigns proper (I find it interesting that the Leave campaign is rising in the polls now that the spending limits for both sides are equivalent).
More crucial for the Prime Minister’s own political prospects, however, is the second part, that is, the way in which he has criticised and demeaned those who have been campaigning for Vote Leave – those, remember, who form a majority of his own party.
This does not just apply to his criticisms of Boris Johnson – clearly there has never been a healthy relationship between the two of them, and that is not normally an issue for any party, so long as the two individuals concerned can put aside those differences when they need to work together (think Blair/Brown). What is much worse is the way in which Cameron has sought to characterise the Vote Leave campaigners as in various ways immoral and irrational, and – as part of his campaigning – clearly identified himself with the left of the political spectrum in doing so (thus revealing, in my opinion, where his true metropolitan political sympathies lie).
Recently Cameron even claimed “Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash to make that assumption” – suggesting that to vote leave is to actively risk another war. This is risible, and will not be forgotten by the Conservative Party.
So what is likely to happen? Lots of noises are being made by the ‘usual suspects’ like Nadine Dorries, but they will not be the people that make the crucial decisions. Much, obviously, will depend on the specific nature of the Referendum result itself.
Should there be a very clear mandate to Remain – in other words, in excess of a 55%-45% split in Remain’s favour – then Cameron’s position will in fact be strengthened and he will be able to choose the time of his departure. On the other hand, if there is an equivalently clear vote to Leave then he will be obliged to resign within days. That much is, I believe, the commonly accepted political wisdom.
However, if the voting is more narrow than that – as presently seems likely – then things become more difficult. There are three scenarios I would like to consider.
The first is a narrow victory for the Leave campaign. I suspect that this will also eventually lead to a Cameron resignation but the process will be more fraught, as he will argue that he is best placed to lead the subsequent Brexit negotiations. Few believe that to be true, but things will be messy.
The second is a narrow victory for the Remain campaign. This, I believe, will simply lead to a re-run of the latter days of the Major administration. The majority of Conservative MPs are Eurosceptic and there will be immense bitterness at the way in which Cameron has behaved. The arguments about manipulation will not go away. Cameron may be able to hang on for some time, but he will be a mortally wounded figure.
The third is a slight tweak on the second: the UK as a whole votes to Remain, but England votes to Leave. This is an outcome I consider quite likely, and the consequences could be profound. The Scottish referendum raised all sorts of questions about the unity of our nation, and if England seeks to move in a different direction to the other home countries then it is not difficult to see the Eurosceptic cause gaining huge encouragement from such an outcome.
The question would then be how far the political right in this country was able to morph in such a way as to harness that latent English nationalist and Eurosceptical sentiment for electoral gain. I could conceive of a situation that saw a rapprochement between the main part of the Conservatives and UKIP leading to a re-alignment of the right – and I could see such a ‘new’ party being electorally immensely successful. It would certainly have my sympathies.
As always, we shall watch and await the outcome with great interest. We live in very interesting times.