James Forsyth

Brexit: the first 100 days

Would Cameron resign and watch the pound sink? He has too great a sense of duty for that

Brexit: the first 100 days
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The Spectator Podcast

Christopher Meyer, James Forsyth and Isabel Hardman discuss the first 100 days of Brexit

At 5.15 a.m. on Friday 24 June 2016, David Cameron calls Michael Gove and concedes defeat in the EU referendum. The conversation is brief. With nearly all the results in, it is clear that Remain cannot overturn Leave’s advantage. Downing Street announces that Cameron will address the country before the markets open.

Up to now, this scenario has just been a worst nightmare for the Remain campaign and the wildest dream of the Brexiteers. Even now, the political class is almost unanimous that ‘in’ will win. But there is little psephological evidence for their certainty. The polls show the race is still close; the polling average has it at 51-49 for Remain. But one Labour shadow cabinet member has taken to comparing the situation to the general election: the polls don’t give cause for panic, but the reaction on the doorstep does.

So it is time to accept that a victory for Leave, while still unlikely, is a distinct possibility. The bookmakers say there is a 30 per cent chance; Citigroup puts it as high as 40 per cent. Enough, surely, to consider what the immediate aftermath of a vote to leave the European Union might look like.

First, if Mr. Cameron were to address the cameras after a vote for Brexit, what would he say? One of those who has known Cameron since he first started out in politics tells me that he believes the Prime Minister’s sense of public service is too strong for him simply to resign, and amplify a sense of panic. But it would be very hard for him to lead Britain’s exit negotiations after the public had rejected his renegotiation. The most likely outcome would be Cameron staying as Prime Minister until the Conservative conference in October.

There would, however, be several key decisions to take before then. Would Cameron invoke Article 50, the two-year process for leaving the EU, immediately? He has repeatedly threatened to do so, but this would be an act of sabotage, not one that we can expect Cameron to enact on his country. It would be best to wait — to let tempers cool in Brussels and other EU capitals. To spend months, perhaps even a year or two, sketching the outlines of a deal before serving notice. Some in the Foreign Office think that other countries could demand that Article 50 was invoked straight away, but it is unclear what legal basis they would have to do so.

Cameron’s other great challenge would be to work out how to unsay the things that he has said about the economic consequences of leaving. He has described quitting the EU as akin to putting a ‘bomb under our economy’, and in the days after Brexit he would have to find some way to negate these comments. It might be tempting for him to watch the (inevitable) slide of sterling and simply say ‘I told you so.’ But, again, I suspect that his sense of duty would lead to him doing what he can to stabilise the currency.

Meanwhile, those who led the Leave campaign would have plenty on their plates. They would have to convince the rest of the world that Brexit was not Britain pulling up the drawbridge, that the country was still open for business. Boris Johnson has already talked about how, if Britain were to vote Leave, a massive effort would have to be made to persuade the Continent that the UK hadn’t voted to leave Europe, just the centralising force of the EU. Reassurance would have to be given that Britain would remain a key and active partner in all questions of security, foreign policy and defence. Indeed, after a Brexit vote might well be a good time for Britain to push for a permanent Nato base in Poland. This would show that leaving the EU wasn’t about the UK abandoning its global role.

Another priority would be to send a clear signal to the business world that Britain was leaving the EU to pursue a more liberal economic policy, rather than lurching into protectionism. One idea, talked about by influential members of Leave campaign, is to cut corporation tax to 10 per cent. This would send a clear message that Britain wanted to compete in the global economy.

In the past few days, there have been reports that Parliament — where there is a pro-EU and pro-single market majority in both houses — might keep Britain in the single market even if the country voted to leave the EU. This week, one member of the government told me that No. 10 was sympathetic to the idea. But, in reality, this would be an affront to democracy. Both Gove and Johnson have stated explicitly that they want to leave the single market, and the Remain campaign has argued against them on that basis. For Parliament to keep Britain in the single market after EU withdrawal — and therefore to maintain free movement — would be a deliberate decision to overlook the referendum result. Such a stitch-up could inflame anti-politics sentiment to a dangerous extent.

If Britain did vote to leave, it would suggest Parliament was out of touch with the country: only around a quarter of MPs back Brexit. We would see MPs scrambling to catch up with public opinion and to avoid a challenge at the next election. Labour MPs who discovered that their constituents had voted to leave would not wish to do anything that might make it easier to unseat them.

Then there is the question of whether Brexit would make the Tory party impossible to lead. Sir John Major has explicitly warned Boris Johnson that if he takes over after Britain has voted to leave the EU he might face the same problem that Iain Duncan Smith did: Tory MPs would be prepared to defy a man who had gone against his party leader. Most on the Remain side are governing types, not inclined to wage guerrilla warfare. But given how small the government’s majority is, even a few rebels could make a lot of trouble.

A vote to leave the EU would be the most dramatic moment in recent British political history. It is impossible to be sure how things might settle afterwards. But beyond the immediate issue of calming the markets, the greatest challenge would be to show that, while Britain may have left the EU, it remains an open nation, keen to trade and engage with the world.

The Spectator Podcast

Christopher Meyer, James Forsyth and Isabel Hardman discuss the first 100 days of Brexit

Will Britain vote to leave the EU? Can the Tories survive the aftermath? Join James Forsyth, Isabel Hardman and Fraser Nelson to discuss at a subscriber-only event at the Royal Institution, Mayfair, on Monday 20 June. Tickets are on sale now. Not a subscriber? Click here to join us, from just £1 a week.