I’ve heard it said that some folk can’t support the Leave proposition because if Leave win, it will give a massive boost to UKIP. The theory goes that their worst headbangers who dribble on about all manner of conspiracy theories (presumably orchestrated by muslims), would be dancing in the street while their leader, Nigel Farage, would surely get a knighthood, a Lordship and be feted in victory parades around the country. A hero to whom we must all bow down and hang on his every subsequent word about Romanians, people talking funny on trains etc.
You can see the logic of this theory except for the fact that it is trumped by a diametrically-opposed theory: A Leave vote will finish UKIP; the party’s job done, and the Conservative Party would pick it up from there. I contend that it is a Remain vote that would put UKIP on steroids.
We have now sat through three years since David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech, we have watched the prime minster as he has steadily lowered expectations to vanishing point. A classic tactic and one could have almost written the script of how the final deal would exceed everyone’s expectations and thereby be voted through in a thumping Remain vote in 2017. Cameron could have given added rocket fuel to the Remain side by promising later in the campaign a second referendum to ratify the eventual treaty that would reinforce all these renegotiated changes and more.
But as the stage seems set for a June referendum, one wonders whether those low expectations are really all that Cameron has. With no promise of a treaty either because the EU colleagues have pulled back from their own mooted timetable, he is starting to look very exposed. If this is true, it is a dangerous moment for both the Leave and the Remain campaigns. But more than that, it is hugely dangerous for the Conservative Party especially when one also considers some key Conservative voices are falling into line behind Cameron. And so are Conservative commentators like the “dedicated, convinced, fervent eurosceptic” Janet Daley [according to her own column in November] are going the same way.
If the vote is in June, a divided Leave campaign will never find coherence in the short time before the vote, driven as it is in different and mostly unrealistic directions by some strong characters. And so Remain will probably win this referendum but only after a bloody campaign that many predicted (but some of us thought Cameron would manage to avoid with help from his EU colleagues). But equally Cameron and the Remain campaign would be selling ‘thin gruel’ that even some people who might naturally lean towards the Remain side would struggle with. In the chaos, the margin of victory could be closer than some expect.
After which, Tory Brexiteers will be hopping mad with Cameron and with almost the entire Tory front bench and leadership. Many grassroots Tories will be spitting blood. The divide between the membership and the parliamentary party will widen. We’ll be back to the Maastricht wars, only much more poisonous. And with Labour also in a state of drift, perhaps even collapse, UKIP will make hay.
The extent of UKIP’s boost would partly depend on some imponderables about the nature of the Leave campaign and the character that is Nigel Farage. But none the less, it is difficult to see how they would not regroup and rebrand after such a “victorious loss” and become more threatening than ever to the political establishment. The emergence of a new UKIP leader and a new strategy, based on a more open outlook — someone like Steven Woolfe, perhaps — could give them added rocket fuel. Although with angry people everywhere after a Remain vote, along with UKIP’s impulse to focus on its core (and worst) voters, that feels speculative at the moment.
The next general election could therefore become much more interesting than the last. With a bumbling Labour Party facing a Tory Party hated by many of its own natural supporters, we might just end up with a grunting mob of Ukippers shouting across the House of Commons at a grunting mob of SNP MPs while the two very broken establishment parties wonder what they did wrong. And each of the old parties facing civil war.
If you think you’ve seen political turbulence in recent years, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
We would see (ironically) a huge push for Scottish independence and a lot of serious rows. The Brexiteers will not take a loss lying down, and when the EU gears up for the final-bullet treaty, completing economic and political union, there’s going to be a resounding No in a second referendum (the referendum lock), leaving us in the paralysis of the status quo — or actually forced into a slow lane of the EU since the treaty draft will anticipate a British No vote.
We will then be in Europe, ruled by Europe, but also isolated and without a voice in the EU or globally. After that, some time later, will come the mother of all rows — a parliament held in total contempt — followed by a third EU referendum where we finally leave the EU.
To summarise; British politics is not going to settle down until we leave the EU and it will get very ugly if we don’t. That’s why we need to leave now in a way that is sensible, can be privately accepted by many Conservatives (and Labour), and can draw the sting from an issue that has poisoned British politics for over 40 years. That means something very much like the The Market Solution, a phased secession, with a soft landing comprised on rejoining EFTA and trading with the EU via the EEA.
Win or lose this referendum, British issues with the EU will not die. We want cooperation; they want merger. We see the EU as a transactional relationship; they see it as transformational. None of that will change. But with a Remain vote based on a quick campaign and a lot of spin, the UK will be expected to shut up about it. The brake on EU integration will have been finally removed. And don’t expect them to take us seriously ever again.
So if anybody thinks a Remain vote will settle the EU issue once and for all, they are mistaken. Very mistaken. And as for the Conservative Party: Anything less than a Leave vote may tear it apart.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty