Alastair Meeks says one way or another we shall have a referendum result in three weeks’ time and one side will have won and one side will have lost. What next for the losing side?
If Remain lose
The way forward for Remain if they lose is straightforward, even if it is unpalatable to them. It will be time to give up. There should be no talk of reruns, no attempts to finesse the negotiations to frustrate the public will. Remain has issued untold warnings about the risks of voting to Leave and if the majority still wish to run those risks, their wishes should be respected. That’s democracy.
It is inconceivable that exit negotiations with the EU could be conducted by David Cameron: his authority would have vaporised overnight. He could, I suppose, appoint a Leaver as chief negotiator but given that the exit negotiations would span the full range of government, it would be more honest to stand down and let someone who retains authority take over.
Nor should those in favour of continued EU membership be in a hurry to reverse the decision. Quite apart from the fact that the EU would no doubt be very reluctant to reunite with a former member until it was sure that it would not be disruptive, Leave would need to be given a fair crack of the whip. Who knows, the new Leaver Prime Minister might navigate the complexities of negotiating our exit and it might work out well? Admittedly, he or she would need to do so with an enigmatic negotiating mandate and a minuscule majority leading a Conservative party that has various groupings already barely on speaking terms with each other. But they have to be given the chance.
If Leave lose
Things are less straightforward if Leave lose. There are, however, things that Leavers should definitely do. They should look hard at why they lost. And then, having done so, they should discard all those reasons which they can file under Not Their Fault. It should not have come as a shock that their opponents fought hard and on their own agenda. It should not have come as a shock that Leave would face substantial questions about the economic consequences of a vote to exit. It should not have come as a shock that detailed questions would be asked about the terms of exit. Yet Leave seemed ready for none of these. It is as though the Leave campaign thought that once the referendum was called the ineffable correctness of their case would be made manifest to the entire electorate without requiring further explanation.
No one expects Leavers to change their views overnight. But the electorate has the right to expect the matter to be settled in the absence of major changes in the political landscape (otherwise what was the purpose of the referendum?). If Leavers are not going to forfeit all patience from the public who have indulged their hobby horse for the last six months, they are going to need to reach some form of accommodation with a decision to Remain.
This is one of those occasions where leadership is potentially very important. If a prominent Leaver of unimpeachable integrity to the cause (Michael Gove, perhaps) were to outline principles of behaviour for Leavers to follow in the wake of a defeat, he would enhance his authority among Leavers no end while simultaneously setting a lead for constructive engagement in the wake of a bitter defeat.
If Remain lose, I expect that the defeated side would behave more or less as I suggest. No doubt we would see dramas and tantrums and some silly suggestions that the referendum needed to be rerun, but by and large the result would be accepted. Even if the government wanted to, it would not have the numbers in Parliament to ignore the decision. Leave would have to be given its chance.
But if Leave lose, I see no chance of it taking time out. It is far too divided, far too angry and far too fervent in its belief in its correctness. Instead, it is likely to splinter into multiple different factions, each pursuing its own strategy and each undermining the others. That’s likely to be very bad news for the Conservative party, as its disintegration looks set to continue indefinitely. For the rest of us, it looks likely to be an entertaining spectator sport.