James Forsyth

Don’t rule out a second referendum

And the next Conservative government is likely to campaign for Brexit

Don’t rule out a second referendum
Text settings

As the Queen read out her government’s agenda on Wednesday morning, David Cameron could have been forgiven for thinking about his place in history. What will he be remembered for, other than having held the office? The so-called ‘life chances’ strategy is intended to be a central plank of his legacy. He wants to be able to say that he made Britain more ‘socially just’. Indeed, this is his principal reason for wanting to stay in No. 10 for a few more years.

Cameron loyalists hope he’ll be remembered as the leader who made the Tories the natural party of government again. The man who moved them on from Thatcherism to a modern version of one-nation politics; who confronted the deficit in a fair (if leisurely) manner. Who secured the future of the United Kingdom and who settled for the country — and the Tory party — the question of Britain’s place in the EU.

Will his premiership be spoiled by Europe, as Tony Blair’s was by Iraq? There is increasing confidence at the top of the government that he can move on. That the result will be more decisive than the polls indicate, and that their much-derided campaign will be vindicated. They calculate that three in four Tory MPs just want to stop talking about Europe, so it will be easier than expected to put the party back together after the referendum. There are some Tory MPs who want Cameron gone as soon as, but not enough to cause serious trouble.

It is not just the general election that is giving Cameron’s circle confidence, but also the Scottish parliamentary election results. The SNP losing its Holyrood majority, they say, is proof that referendums can be more decisive than they at first appear. For all the SNP’s gains since the independence vote, there is now no chance of a second referendum in the medium term. The nationalist tide is now on the ebb.

Downing Street calculates that it is at least ten years before another EU treaty will be required. This will leave time for passions to cool and Britain’s new arrangements to bed in before a ‘referendum lock’ is triggered on any transfer of powers to Brussels.

But this confidence might be misplaced. The ‘Leave’ genie is now out of the bottle and will be impossible to put back in. Before this referendum, wanting to leave the EU was a relatively unusual position. Most leading Eurosceptics argued for radical reform, rather than departure. Those who wanted out tended to keep it a secret. No one in the Cabinet admitted wanting to leave the EU. But that has all changed now. More than 130 Tory MPs have publicly declared for Brexit, including several members of the cabinet. One of these Outers will probably be the next leader of the party — and, ergo, Prime Minister. It is no longer a fringe position, but a mainstream one shared by between a third to a half of the country. So the MPs who have declared for Out will not recant if they lose the referendum. Even if they accept the result, everyone will know what they actually think.

Another reason that the issue won’t go away is that the European Union will keep forcing itself on to the agenda. After all, Cameron became Tory leader promising to stop the party from ‘banging on about Europe’ but now finds his premiership defined by the issue. The problem for whoever governs Britain is that, to adapt Trotsky, you may not be interested in the EU, but the EU is interested in you. Or, more specifically, in the powers that you have.

This referendum is taking place at the wrong time. The crucial issue in the EU right now is how the eurozone resolves its structural problems. How to make a one-size currency fit all its members? The answer has profound implication for the United Kingdom. If the eurozone continues to muddle along with a series of temporary fixes it will have an ever-declining share of the world economy but our overall position within the EU will not change much.

However, if the eurozone decides to pursue further integration it will have far-reaching consequences for Britain. And if it votes as a bloc, the UK could be regularly defeated. Our ability to influence both individual decisions and the overall direction of the EU would be greatly reduced. The provisions in the renegotiation that are supposed to stop this from happening are far from watertight, as the deputy governor of the Bank of England John Cunliffe admitted in a recent letter to the Treasury Select Committee. If the eurozone were to start using its voting weight to regularly override British objections, then it is easy to see how demands for a second referendum would grow.

Another issue that could push the issue of a second referendum up the agenda is a sense that the promises made by the Remain campaign during this referendum have not been kept. Then comes the European Court of Justice and its judicial activism. One minister who is passionately in favour of us staying in the EU admits in private that the court may overreach itself so much that Britain ends up having no choice but to quit its jurisdiction. It is worth remembering that it was the overbearing nature of the ECJ and its interpretation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights which most motivated Boris Johnson to come out for Leave.

Of course, we have not yet had this vote. There are five weeks to go and the campaign is close enough that events could still swing it for leave. But some on the Out side of the debate have long had a two-referendum strategy. Their view was that they simply had too much ground to make up in one campaign, but a reasonable result — combined with the direction in which the EU is heading — would allow them to win a second vote in the not-too-distant future.

What is for certain is that the evolving nature of the EU means that there is no guarantee that this referendum will be definitive. And if there is another referendum, a future Tory government is likely to be on the Out side of the argument.