Former Conservative special advisor BARNABY TOWNS imagines an alternative political universe where the 2016 was never held, or won by Remain.
As Great Britain – England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland – stare down the abyss of casting aside nearly half a century of increasingly integrated trade and security relationships, it is worth recalling how a mixture of accidents, artless decisions and a close referendum result brought us here.
Incredibly, the June 2016 referendum is now four-and-a-half years ago – longer than the duration of most post-war parliaments. Leave’s margin of victory, at 3.8%, was narrower than the popular vote between the two main parties in 12 of the 20 post-war general elections.
Similarly slim odds also got the referendum held at all. As coalition prime minister, David Cameron had dismissed Tory and Liberal Democrat concerns, including that of the chancellor, deputy prime minister and chief secretary to the Treasury, that an in/out vote on EU membership might be lost. Characteristically, Cameron argued that the next general election would result in a hung parliament and therefore a continuation of the coalition, allowing him to simply say to pro-Leave Tories that the Lib Dems had forced him to drop the pledge as the price of coalition, keeping Labour out of power.
If Cameron’s reckless 2013 referendum pledge had never seen the light of day, as he predicted, or perhaps a more competent and relatable Remain campaign than the one that became known as ‘Project Fear’ had prevailed in 2016, maybe one centred on the many benefits of membership, we would be looking at a very different political reality as 2020 draws to a close.
In such a counterfactual universe, we would likely have only our first prime minister since Cameron, assuming he kept his promise to serve only two terms, rather than the two we actually had. Staying in No.10 following a narrow Remain result and forming a new ‘unity’ cabinet with ministers from both sides of the Remain-Leave divide, he may have decided to step down in May 2019, giving his party time to choose a successor and the new prime minister one year before facing the electorate.
That four-year period, as opposed to the real one-year Cameron second term, would have been marked by a more consistent, low-key legislative programme rather than the often abrupt twists in policy that were the hallmark of the transitions from Cameron to May and May to Johnson. The 2015 Conservative manifesto included only rather modest changes to tax and spending, alongside the-now familiar near-impossible-to-deliver commitment to keep net immigration in the tens of thousands. That document’s sole explosive pledge – the referendum – would have been fulfilled with a Remain win.
Perhaps what is more interesting than what minor changes Cameron might have introduced is how the candidates to replace him would reconcile a Remain referendum result with an overwhelmingly pro-Leave membership. Assuming party rules remained the same, and members continued to have the final say between the top two leadership candidates, this would be a complex political landscape to navigate. A Remain win would have put off leaving for the foreseeable future, while not having changed any minds among members.
If Cameron formed a ‘unity’ cabinet after a Remain win, lukewarm Remainers such as Theresa May as well as now former Leavers Michael Gove and Boris Johnson might put their names in the mix. There would have been incentives to cast themselves as ‘unity’ candidates. Now exiled Rory Stewart and Sam Gyimah might make bids as fresh faces beyond 2016’s divide. But assuming a divided parliamentary party dispatched one Leaver and one Remainer to go forward to the membership ballot, the members might simply go with what they could get and choose Gove or Johnson without a promise of a further referendum to re-open the subject any time soon.
The party membership has form in this. They chose Iain Duncan Smith rather than the more electable Ken Clarke in 2001, largely on the European issue. IDS, in common with almost all subsequent Leave supporters, was not advocating withdrawal at that time. In 2005, members more pragmatically chose Cameron over David Davis, who more closely reflected their views, but after three crushing general election defeats with polls showing Cameron more popular with the wider electorate than Davis.
That brings us to Boris Johnson, always a members’ favourite – and, it should be remembered, pragmatic enough to have penned both a Remain and a Leave article for his lucrative Telegraph column before deciding to throw his political lot in with the latter, largely to appeal to Tory members with an eye to succeeding Cameron.
Far from finding this mismatch between a Remain result and Leave members a problem, it would perhaps instead be an ideal result for Johnson, who instinctively prefers avoiding hard and fast positions on anything. As Rory Stewart recently noted in a highly perceptive Times Literary Supplement review of Tom Bower’s book about the prime minister: “Johnson is after all the most accomplished liar in public life – perhaps the best liar ever to serve as prime minister… But what makes him unusual in a politician is that his dishonesty has no clear political intent.”
Indeed, Johnson would be able to have his proverbial cake and eat it. Having proved his Leave credentials to members, he could achieve his ambition to become prime minister, and share their lament that Remain won without any of the hassle or inconvenience that actually leaving the EU involves.
That said, this alternative history would still pose some problems. For one, UKIP or some variation of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party would almost certainly fill the political vacuum created by a narrow defeat of the Leave proposition in the referendum, perhaps even demanding a second referendum.
And merely because Leave lost the referendum wouldn’t mean that populism was over, as Johnson would feel compelled to offer red meat to disappointed Leave voters, lest they flock to Farage. This may well include such populist obsessions with which we are familiar: cutting foreign aid; tougher immigration controls; and grandstanding against the EU, of which we would remain members.
Theresa May would be spared the indignity of her dealings with Johnson’s populist comrade-in-arms across the Atlantic; and David Cameron might be relieved to seek shelter in his shed to write his memoirs, rather than constantly trying to balance US-UK relations against the reputation of Tory modernisation. However, May could have thought it necessary to endure a Johnson cabinet, having not achieved her undoubted ambition to become prime minister.
Johnson’s cabinet perhaps might have been a more collegial one than that which has been in place since the general election. A loss in the referendum would have been much harder for such a government to have become, as Ian Dunt succinctly put it, “Vote Leave in executive form”. No Dominic Cummings and possibly no pre-election purge of moderate Tory Remainers and Leavers. No purge would likely mean a wider range of opinion which it would be wise to respect among the Tory parliamentary party.
In this sense, winning the referendum in 2016 might have been better politically for the Tories, long-term, enabling them to remain more of a broad church and to draw upon a wider range of parliamentary talent. Instead of relying on such relatively inexperienced but reliably loyal pro-Leave ministers in high-profile positions such as Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, a broader bench might mean more competence.
Competence might nonetheless be challenged by the coronavirus crisis with Johnson still at least nominally in charge, as presumably a general election scheduled for May 2020, as per the Fixed Parliaments Act, would be postponed along with that year’s London mayoral and local elections. But perhaps with Jeremy Hunt, Savid Javid, Greg Clark, David Gauke and others serving alongside, the government’s overall performance might be superior to the performance with which we are familiar.
Consequences of a delayed election also would be felt among the opposition parties. Perhaps the greatest change here would be the Labour Party possibly being led by Jeremy Corbyn all the way until May 2021: probably good for the Conservatives, but not for Labour. The sensible, calm and authoritative leadership of Keir Starmer with which we are now familiar would have to wait in this counter-actual.
Of less consequence but still of interest, the Liberal Democrats might still have Jo Swinson in place, with some Change UK MPs joining after the 2019 European elections, which would have led to permanent members of the European parliament rather than the seven-month MEPs of the reality.
A Remain win is an interesting thought experiment – especially given the possibility that such a result could well have been better for Tory unity. This scenario might also have been a step up for the Labour Party, in the sense that the ‘Red Wall’ may not have crumbled so comprehensively without the Leave issue helping the Tories to win traditional Labour votes. By turn, the Tories might be less threatened by the Lib Dems in their high-income, more-highly-educated enclaves.
Of course, we will never know what might have been; but we may soon be about to discover just how unlucky we are.