Nick Palmer looks at what will really happen?
It’s only quite recently that most serious commentators took the prospect of a Leave vote seriously. A consequence of that is that there has been very little serious analysis of what would happen next in political terms. Leave say we’ll feel free at last, Remain say the pound will plummet and we’ll risk an economic crisis. But what, specifically, will happen in terms of Government?
1) Cameron will quit.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re for Remain or Leave, and whether you like Cameron or not. If Britain votes to leave, it would be ridiculous for the Leave negotiations to be led by Cameron. Nor is there any sign whatever that he wants to stay on. He’ll give his notice on June 24, and run a caretaker administration until we get a new leader.
2) There will be a period of severe uncertainty.
This can’t be avoided. It will take at least two months to elect a new leader, and since that puts us into late August, realistically it’s going to be September. Throughout that period, we’ll be governed by a leader who has been rejected, grappling with whatever the markets throw his way. It won’t be clear whether the new leader will want to negotiate an EEA position (good for markets, but disappointing immigration critics) or some sort of special status like Switzerland, outside the EEA but with detailed special deals developed over time. Nor will it be clear whether the new leader will get what he or she wants. You can’t blame the markets for being uncertain, but we’ll just have to ride it out.
3) Boris will win.
After a very rocky start to the campaign, Boris has avoided major blunders in recent weeks and established himself as the popular leader of Leave. Hugely popular with the grass roots (see here) and almost the only politician who has a real popular following these days, it’s not possible to see his many enemies in Westminster successfully blocking him. Yes, he has to get to the last two, but can we see Tory MPs defying their membership their clear preference who has just led a triumphant poll win?
4) After a honeymoon, Boris will struggle.
Boris will have an initial honeymoon. A cheerful, upbeat speech at the Tory conference and some warm healing gestures to Remain, backed up by some strong PMQs, it will all go well for a while. He’ll appoint a serious Chancellor (Gove is the obvious choice) and try to steady the ship.
Boris is a man whose political beliefs can reasonably be described as flexible, so it’s hard to predict what his negotiating strategy will be, but in the absence of a passion to be radically different, it seems likely that he’ll go for an EEA-like option, perhaps with some special features. At that point, his problems will become significant. Domestically, a lot of Leave supporters are going to be very disappointed at the likely absence of serious immigration control. The economy will still be reeling from the continuing uncertainty. And Boris is not at all the sort of politician to find it easy to grapple with EU negotiations. The EU likes lengthy, sober, careful compromise, hammered out in weeks of haggling. Even Cameron finds this tiresome. Boris will hate it. EU leaders are generally Establishment with a capital E, deeply suspicious of populists, especially anti-EU populists. They will try to reach a deal, but they will not be amused by Boris or in a mood to make major concessions – if only to discourage others from contemplating exit as well.
5) We will have an election in early 2017.
After some months of this, Boris is going to reach for his strongest card, electoral appeal, before it entirely wears off. With the economy in trouble, negotiations bogged down, supporters uneasy and no effective majority, he’ll want a strong mandate, forcing internal critics into line and giving him a better basis to negotiate. The practical embarrassment of either repealing the Fixed Term Parliament Act or moving a vote of no confidence in his own government will be shrugged off in Boris’s inimitable fashion – “that’s how Westminster works, baffling, what?” Labour will need to accept it – we can’t sensibly refuse an election.
Would he win? It’s hard to predict for sure. On paper, easily. He’s popular, Labour is divided, the press will be on side. In practice, less clear. After six months of economic turmoil, Boris will not, for all his charm, look like a steady hand on the tiller. A result not dissimilar to 2015 is quite plausible, leaving him still without a convincing majority and a long grind of negotiations ahead. And at that point, I think everyone involved is going to be in trouble, including Britain as a whole. But predictions can’t sensibly go further than that.
It may be difficult, possibly even disastrous. But it will certainly be interesting.
Nick Palmer was MP for Broxtowe from 1997 to 2010 and has been posting on PB since 2004