A slightly belated prediction for 2016: it’s as likely as not that by the year’s end David Cameron will no longer be prime minister. Well, less a prediction that a statement of probability. It rests on a series of further predictions:
1. Cameron goes to the European Council meeting and claims major concessions.
2. On the strength of these, Cameron recommends a ‘Remain’ vote in the In/Out referendum.
3. Cameron’s concessions are widely derided by the Europhobic right in his own party and beyond.
4. Several Cabinet ministers, as well as Boris Johnson, come out for ‘Leave’.
5. Cameron schedules the vote for September, to counter Outers’ claim that the referendum is being run to a truncated timetable to favour ‘Remain’.
6. The refugee crisis drags on, strengthening the hand of Outers who blame the EU’s open borders policy.
7. Another terrorist attack in an EU member state has the same effect.
8. The vote favours Brexit.
9. Cameron quits.
It is clear that Cameron is going to act as in 1 and 2; he’s already made clear that he wants to stay in. He’ll head for Brussels making demands long on rhetoric and short on substance, apart from the one about migrant benefits. British premiers go to the EU blustering like Henry V and come back like Neville Chamberlain.
To paraphrase Gore Vidal, the Conservatives are now one party with two right wings. Even if Cameron scrapes a couple of sops from Merkel on the Lisbon treaty and migrants’ benefits, boostered as ‘major concessions’, nothing will appease the Europhobes, any more than the atrophied Europhile wing will favour Brexit.
On 4: some Cabinet ministers will out themselves, the more so if they reckon that ‘Remain’ is doomed and they can buff up their leadership prospects (the Tory party nationally is overwhelmingly Europhobe) by slashing the Eurohydra. They may include such revenants as Grayling, Gove and May. Johnson will have made the same calculation. The ensuing gravywrestling, dragged out over the spring and summer, is unlikely to enhance the PM’s authority.
It’s possible the vote will be earlier, say in June, though Nicola Sturgeon has warned that then the Euro poll would overlap with the Holyrood elections. A June referendum would reduce some risks – the longer the campaign drags on, the more likely it is that the migrant crisis, or a terrorist attack, gives Outers further munitions to hurl at the EU. It also cuts the time in which British voters are treated to the spectacle of Tory civil war. Even so, it’s not clear that shortening the campaign will save Dave’s bacon.
That brings us to 8. Recent polls suggest that ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ are more or less evenly split. But one of the likeliest explanations for the polls’ failure to predict the 2015 election result – bashful Tories – may understate support for ‘Leave’. Outers are more liable than Inners to lie about their intentions. The trouble for Inners is that ‘Remain’ is the establishment option – it’ll be backed by all parties in Parliament apart from Ukip's Douglas Carswell. As Corbyn’s election and the Labour wipe-out in Scotland have shown, voters are sick of same-old.
As for 9, Cameron has said that he wouldn’t resign if he lost the referendum. He has to say that, given that his position was too weak to enforce a ‘Remain’ line on the party – if he said he’d go in the event of a 'Leave' vote, Tories campaigning for Brexit would in effect also be campaigning for his ouster. Still, it won’t be his call. If ‘Leave’ wins, the loss of face will be terminal (and anyway, staying on, even with a narrow win, would swap the pearl-handled revolver for the poisoned cup).
Happily Osborne, tethered like the PM to ‘Remain’, can win only if Dave retires sometime after winning the referendum, not if he’s booted out after losing it. Whoever takes over then – probably Johnson, assuming he’ll have campaigned for ‘Leave’ – will take over what is, in all but name, the English nationalist party.
Scots will be pissed off at winding up in the custody of the wrong parent after divorce. It’s not just that Scottish and English nationalisms take opposite views of the EU: the SNP benefits, as the Tories suffer, from hostility to the establishment. Brexited against its will by England, Scotland would be likely to walk in a second referendum. And the little Englanders who dominate the parliamentary and constituency Tory parties will take over the remains of what Dickens, quoting Charles Dibdin, called ‘our tight little, right little island’.