Far too little consideration has yet gone into what the referendum result will mean for British politics, even though it is now just a few days away. If the polls are right – big if – Leave will win. It’s time to consider what that might mean.
David Cameron’s authority would be dust. He has staked everything on the referendum and if Leave win he would have lost. While many Conservative members remain well-disposed to him, including many who support Leave, he would have lost the biggest political battle of his life, defeated on argument. He would have failed to lead and he would have failed to persuade. He would have no credibility to negotiate terms of exit. Whether or not he remained Prime Minister, power would lie elsewhere.
So, all other things being equal, he would depart the stage – either of his own free will or with the heavy encouragement of his most dedicated Parliamentary opponents. So should we expect a next day resignation?
On this occasion all things aren’t equal. There is a general expectation that the financial markets might well take fright in the short term if Britain votes Leave. A steady hand would be needed on the tiller to guide the country through that: replacing the Prime Minister in the midst of that would make the crisis that much worse.
So the Prime Minister seems unlikely to resign on Friday – whatever else David Cameron is, he feels the responsibility of public duty and he would stay in office long enough to ensure that there any short term crisis is dealt with. If a short term crisis indeed erupted, his internal opponents would probably stay their hands for the days or weeks required for him to steady the ship. If they do not, “this is no time for a novice” would be as effective a line for David Cameron in 2016 as it was for Gordon Brown in 2008.
The effect of this would be to kill the momentum in the short term to eject him from office. So if not then, when?
All the fundamental reasons why David Cameron would be in office but not in power would remain. So when would he go? My guess is that he would not wish to hang around pointlessly but that he would wish to secure an orderly succession to someone who he respects. All the smoke signals suggest that if he has only one wish left about his successor, it will be that his successor is not Boris Johnson.
How best can David Cameron do this? One of Boris Johnson’s main drawbacks is his lack of ministerial experience. On the assumption that he cannot be kept out of Cabinet after a Leave victory, that drawback disappears within a few months. So there is a closing window of his lack of credibility.
So despite the pressure probably being off David Cameron immediately after the referendum, I would still expect him to hand in his notice as soon as the threat of any immediate crisis has passed, with a view to a new Prime Minister taking over at the party conference. If Leave wins, prepare for a changing of the guard.