If Britain votes to leave the EU, there is no turning back

In 12 days’ time, we could be living through the fallout from an unprecedented revolt against the elite

John Rentoul
Saturday 11 June 2016 15:30 BST
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Michael Gove could be chancellor and Boris Johnson prime minister by October
Michael Gove could be chancellor and Boris Johnson prime minister by October (Getty)

I have predicted both outcomes, so whatever the result of the EU referendum I will be able to say I told you so. For a long time I thought Remain would win by a large margin. Then when David Cameron secured modest terms in his renegotiation and Boris Johnson defected, I thought Leave might win.

Now, although there is real alarm in 10 Downing Street, I have swung back to thinking we will vote to stay in. We shouldn’t rely too much on the opinion polls – that much we learned last year – and the fundamentals are the economy and the fear of the unknown. On the economy, the Leave campaign is reduced to hoping that voters think lower immigration is worth being slightly poorer than we would otherwise be.

As for the unknown, I don’t think the Leave campaign has done enough to persuade people to abandon the devil they know. Peter Kellner, the former president of YouGov, points out that public opinion tends to move in favour of the status quo in the final weeks of referendum campaigns.

I think I am responding, as any good forecaster should, to new information. You may think I am all over the place.

But I do wonder if my judgement might also be influenced by the sheer unthinkability of a Leave vote. By which I mean that if you start to set out what precisely would happen, it quickly begins to feel like low-grade fiction. Not that I personally find the idea of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister as inherently implausible as many people do. Yet everything else seems unreal about what would be a huge shock to the political establishment.

With 12 days to go to the referendum, there won’t be many more chances to try to imagine what would happen if we vote to leave. Either we will be going through the anticlimax of a Remain future, or we will be living through the fallout from an unprecedented revolt against the elite.

The immediate political mechanics are straightforward enough, although it feels weird to be calculating the odds of a change of prime minister. Cameron would announce that he will stand down as soon as a successor is elected. That successor would almost certainly be Boris Johnson. His opponent in the leadership election would depend on how Tory MPs react to the shock of a Leave vote. Would Tory Remainers want to put forward a candidate who didn’t support the policy mandated by the referendum? Would George Osborne even stand?

Perhaps Theresa May would do well, as the most reluctant of the Cabinet Remainers. But the mood of the party may be such that Tory MPs end up choosing two Leavers, as pro-EU MPs calculate that they need to rally behind a Stop Boris candidate as the lesser of two evils. I have said it before, but Andrea Leadsom may be well placed. She’s a Leaver, she’s had a good referendum campaign and she’s not Boris. I believe Michael Gove when he says he wouldn’t run. He would be Johnson’s Chancellor.

So I expect it might be Johnson versus May or Leadsom, and Johnson would probably win because the grassroots party members would vote for him. His win for Leave would have wiped from the record the liberal media elite’s disdain for his buffoonish campaign. Unless something big, unexpected and negative happens to him, he would be Prime Minister by October.

But that is just the start. Everything else would be dominated by one immovable fact: that the British people have voted for something with which most of their elected representatives disagree.

Wollaston on Leave defection

Prime Minister Johnson will find himself at the head of a minority in the House of Commons: about 160 MPs, including 140 Tories, a dozen Labour, eight DUP and one Ukip, who support his policy, against 490 who don’t. He will be in similar peculiar position to that of Jeremy Corbyn, outnumbered in Parliament but armed with a mandate from outside.

This imbalance has prompted all manner of speculation: that if the result of the referendum is close there would have to be a second one; or that the majority in Parliament would obstruct the will of the people to leave the EU. Neither is plausible. Parliament has to respect the result.

The more subtle obstructionist theory is that the majority in the Commons would try to keep the UK in the single market, with a status like Norway’s: outside the EU but accepting freedom of movement of EU workers as the price of full access to the EU market. Again, I don’t think that is politically possible. The leaders of the official Leave campaign have made it clear that they do not accept freedom of movement, and one of the main reasons for voting to leave is to restrict immigration.

If Britain votes to leave, it would be the first time since the referendum was introduced into the British constitution, by Harold Wilson in 1975, that direct democracy produced a different result from representative democracy. British politics will never be the same again.

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