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Dangerous corner. Where would we be now if Remain had won 52:48?

December 21st, 2018

The musical cigarette box played the Wedding March. Britain chose narrowly but decisively to vote to leave the EU. One of the frustrations with the universe that we live in is that we never get to see what would have happened if things had panned out differently.  

What if the country had chosen differently? Imagine if Remain had won by the same narrow margin.  Where would we be now? Here’s one possibility…

David Cameron had got so far sketching out his memoirs and he was stuck. How was he to capture the aftermath of the referendum? Calling the referendum had been only a qualified success. He had secured his expected victory but he had been run far harder than he had originally expected. Nigel Farage had warned in advance that a 52:48 victory for Remain would be unfinished business. The Leave camp proved just as ungracious losers as that suggested.

In the immediate wake of the result he had reconfigured his Cabinet to bring in a few more prominent Leavers. He had made Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary so that he could implement the deal that had been secured with the EU and promoted Andrea Leadsom to DEFRA as a reward for the principled way in which she had made her case. Overcoming his cold fury at the perceived disloyalty, the Prime Minister had left Michael Gove in place at the MoJ. He left the others to rot on the backbenches to continue their scheming and plotting.

That might have been a mistake in retrospect. Throughout the rest of his premiership the ERG made repeated calls for votes of no confidence. Andrew Bridgen flourished his letter on 24 June 2016. The ERG vowed to mount an intifada against the EU’s oppression and Jacob Rees-Mogg in tones of icy mournfulness had called on his fellow MPs to send in their letters of no confidence in July 2016, November 2016, December 2016 and February 2017.

Michael Gove sensationally stepped down from Parliament in March 2017 to become Paul Dacre’s successor as editor of the Daily Mail and the virulence of the attacks on the government intensified, with the added spice of a personal vendetta between the editor and half the Cabinet.

Against this background, David Cameron’s attempts to reunite the party made no headway. Leave supporters pocketed the concessions he made – the immediate use of an emergency brake on benefits for EU migrants, the passing of an Act confirming that Britain would not be participating in ever-closer union – and continued to call for a fresh referendum on the ground that Remain had lied to the electorate.

The pound had strengthened initially following the expected victory. Chancellor Osborne had responded by loosening the purse strings with an immediate “encouragement budget”, spending the Remain dividend with a large increase in spending on the NHS (£350 million a week, to be precise). The economy performed well enough in the short term but started to falter with anaemic growth and lacklustre pay figures. With retailers going bust at a rate of knots, the tabloids claimed that the heart of Britain’s high streets had been ripped out by Brussels bureaucracy.

Nigel Farage continued to agitate. His autobiographical account of the referendum campaign “My Struggle” sold well and he went on a book tour around the nation delivering speeches at every stop. UKIP’s poll ratings continued to rise, breaking 20% almost immediately after the referendum and then bobbling between 25% and 30% with different pollsters. They sensationally won the by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central in February 2017. 

Eight Conservative MPs promptly defected to UKIP in March, immediately causing David Cameron to lose his overall majority. For the rest of his premiership he had to broker deals with either the Lib Dems or UKIP and the DUP, who were caucusing together. However, the attrition rate of UKIP MEPs continued, with a series of personality clashes between Nigel Farage and his senior officers.

Meanwhile Labour had gone in for a renewed bout of bloodletting. Following the referendum result, Labour’s MPs mutinied. Jeremy Corbyn had been more or less completely absent in the campaign, ceding the whole debate to the Conservatives. They passed a vote of no confidence in him and a leadership contest ensued. Jeremy Corbyn won a bitter contest against the Parliamentary party’s chosen candidate Angela Eagle but by a narrower margin than the previous year, in part because of an overtone of perceived sexism from some in the leader’s camp. The infighting continued. Labour and UKIP tussled it out for second place in the polls.

The government sought to move the agenda on.  It rededicated itself to its house building programme, hoping that would take the sting out of some of the anti-immigrationists. It looked at the way in which charges on residential care operated, but backed off when it found itself besieged by opposition and unfriendly newspapers howling about a dementia tax.

Boris didn’t help. Too casual about his ministerial duties and too willing to come up with a witty one-liner at the expense of government unity, he stirred up huge controversy in the wake of terrorist attacks by suggesting that EU membership made protecting citizens harder. He resigned from government in June 2017 to make the case for more stringent immigration restrictions from the backbenches, Following a fresh call from Jacob Rees-Mogg, safe in his new UKIP home, the threshold for letters for a vote of no confidence was reached later that month. David Cameron saw it off but having 95 votes against him had left him seriously weakened.

Labour had by now slipped into a clear third, polling between 20% and 25%. The internecine warfare intensified. A fresh furore broke out in July when the Queen was heard to query who the leader of the Opposition was now. When told, she raised a quizzical eyebrow and said “oh, Jeremy Corbyn?” Even party loyalists had to accept that he had failed to make an impact and when he was challenged again, this time by Ed Miliband campaigning as a unity candidate,

Jeremy Corbyn narrowly lost – the decisive point came when the leader was leaden-footed in condemning some of his outriders’ attacks that strayed perilously close to anti-Semitism. It was like old times but in the interim Ed Miliband had grown sharper, more comfortable in his own skin and leftier. Twitter loved him, though Labour only inched up slightly in the polls.

The Conservatives continued to struggle intellectually, even though they kept a small lead in the polls. Austerity had to be junked in order to keep both the nativist populism on the right and the revived socialism on the left at bay. The deficit remained stubbornly high though tax receipts improved. Even David Cameron could recognise that he was coming to the end of his second Shredded Wheat.

His preference would have been for George Osborne to be his successor. By this stage, however, the party’s heart had been completely captured by the Eurosceptic right and it was apparent that his successor would be someone who could tickle their prejudices. David Cameron wanted to give his successor a good run in before the election was due in 2020 and so he announced in March 2018 that he would be stepping down in July and that accordingly he was calling for a contest for a new Conservative leader.

From his high chair, it had made for enthralling viewing. George had not stood (he saw no reason to allow himself to be a prized scalp in the saga narrative of the eventual winner). Boris Johnson had driven even his friends mad with his disorganised campaign and Michael Gove’s Mail, much to everyone’s surprise, had quixotically thrown itself behind Chris Grayling. In the end, all the different Eurosceptic candidates knocked each other out, forgetting that more than half the Parliamentary party had voted Remain.

His eventual successor was the awkward, innately cautious Theresa May. Six months in and she was riding high in the polls, sitting close to the centre of her party’s instincts on Europe and reflecting the desire of a large part of the public for substance over windy rhetoric. She had already had to disavow any desire to hold an early election.

As he lay back in the chair in his shed, David Cameron wished Theresa May well. Underneath the favourable polling, the same problems lay ahead: the need to reach a stable settlement with the EU, the need to tackle the country’s unbalanced economy and the need to make the country more at ease with itself. He could have drawn up the same list for himself in 2010. Nothing had changed.

Alastair Meeks