If Britain votes to leave the EU on Thursday, it would mean that the four largest parties in the House of Commons, Conservatives, Labour, Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats, most of whose MPs are for Remain, would have been contradicted by the voters who only a year ago sent them to Westminster.
Last week I described what I thought would be the immediate consequences. David Cameron would probably be replaced in October by Boris Johnson, who would start to negotiate the terms of our departure from the EU.
I said I thought the pro-EU majority in both Houses of Parliament would allow those talks to go ahead – it wouldn’t try to force Johnson to go for the Norway option, of keeping us in the EU’s single market and accepting free movement of EU workers.
I didn’t have time to get to the next stage. I assume that Johnson, if he becomes Tory leader and prime minister in October, would hold a general election, either in November or in the spring of next year.
This would not only secure his own mandate, something Gordon Brown failed to do in 2007, it would resolve the contradiction between direct democracy (a referendum that says Leave) and representative democracy (a parliament that says Remain). Johnson would fight the election on a manifesto committing the Tory party to completing our withdrawal from the EU, and explicitly ruling out the Norway option.
Assuming that the Tories win, there would then be a majority in the Commons for Leave. Many Tory MPs might still be Remainers personally, but they would be bound by their manifesto.
Wait a moment, though, you might be thinking. What about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act? Johnson wouldn’t be able to call an election, would he? Yes he would. The law should really be called the Flexible-term Parliaments Act while a single party has a majority in the Commons. The procedure would be a bit odd, because it would require the Government to propose a motion of no confidence in itself. If such a motion were passed, as it would be because the Tories have a majority, the Act, framed with a hung parliament in mind, requires a delay of 14 days to allow for the formation of an alternative government. No such alternative would be possible, because the Tory majority would block it, so Parliament would then be dissolved and an election held.
That election would cause Labour more problems than the Tories. Indeed, one of Johnson’s secondary reasons for holding an election would be the calculation that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is not well placed to fight it. Labour MPs who thought they had three years to wrestle with their consciences will suddenly, like Republican senators and representatives with Trump, be forced to decide whether they can advocate a vote for their own party.
Apart from that, Labour would have to decide whether it accepted the referendum result. When the parties and the outcome were the other way round in 1975, Tony Benn, the leader of the Labour antis, said he accepted the decision, but he didn’t. Eight years later the party fought an election on a promise to take Britain out of the EEC without a referendum.
Labour would be a sideshow, though. The opposition party of consequence would be the SNP. If the UK had voted to Leave, Scotland (and Northern Ireland) would have voted to Remain, unless something peculiar had happened. Nicola Sturgeon’s dilemma would be whether to go for a second referendum on independence. Opinion polls suggest Scots would vote against independence again, but SNP activists would demand it. She is now thinking of timing Scotland’s departure from the UK to coincide with England’s from the EU, so she could present the second Scottish vote as being to keep Scotland in the EU.
The main act, though, would be the Conservative Party. I am told that, when David Cameron surveyed the referendum a few weeks ago, when it looked winnable, he dismissed concerns that the campaign would cause a lasting split. Apart from Europe, he said, the party is united behind my modernisation. Which is a bit like saying that, apart from the anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism, Corbyn is a Blairite.
You have only to say the words “foreign aid” to realise that there are many other questions on which the Tory party is divided.
So it was a surprise to read Johnson in The Sunday Times last weekend saying the same: “I think we’re more united than people realise. It’s much less difficult than the whole Maastricht business was.” He said the party would pull together “to deliver a one-nation agenda of reforming and improving public services, supplying better infrastructure, because that is the bedrock of a strong, dynamic wealth-creating economy”.
Which is a paradox. It is truer when Johnson says it than when Cameron does. If Remain wins, Cameron would have a terrible time trying to keep his EU-phobic party together. If Leave wins, I think Johnson, as leader of a party in touch with public opinion, would have an easier time of uniting his party and carrying all before him.
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