Chaos Awaits Besieged Cameron No Matter What Brexit Result

Brexit: Will the Polls Get it Right?
  • Tory leadership likely to be more EU-skeptic: JPMorgan’s Barr
  • Cameron’s survival depends on margin of result either way

Think everything in British politics will calm down once the European Union referendum is over? Think again. 

The campaign for the June 23 vote has split the governing Conservative Party down the middle, with implications for Britain’s government whatever the result. The fates of Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne are now tied to the outcome. Increasingly caustic exchanges between the opposing sides over the weekend, including three lawmakers openly calling for the prime minister to go, mean that bloodletting in the wider party looks unavoidable.

QuickTake Will Britain Leave the EU?

Most Conservatives are reluctant to speak about the issues on the record, but privately every Tory member of Parliament has a view. After speaking to lawmakers on both sides of the debate, both senior figures and new members, a picture becomes clear: Either way, the referendum legacy looks like it will be a new phase in British politics.

“The leadership of the Conservative Party appears likely to move in a more Euroskeptic direction even after a vote to stay,” said JPMorgan Chase & Co. economist Malcolm Barr. “Assuming the Conservative Party does not fracture over the EU issue, circumstances suggest that they could be well placed to shape U.K. politics in their favor ahead of the next election.”

For more on “blue-on-blue” Conservative jousting, click here

The campaign has featured all the attacks you’d expect in any political battle, with the twist that they’ve only involved members of the prime minister’s party. Iain Duncan Smith, the former pensions secretary, compared Osborne to the lying puppet Pinocchio. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson said Cameron’s behavior “stinks.”

Politicians are used to working with people they despise, and a surprising amount of this they will be able to laugh off afterward. Duncan Smith told the BBC that “a bit of knockabout” was “never personal.” The prime minister said that despite “strong passion on either side,” afterward the party would “come together and accept the result.”

But don’t underestimate the extent of the anger. More than 100 of Cameron’s lawmakers are taking the opposite side from him, and they suspect more colleagues would be with them were it not for fear of retribution. They also resent Cameron using the machinery of government to campaign for a “Remain” vote.

This goes both ways. The “Leave” campaign has benefited from leaks inside government, and has made explicit threats to Cameron. Bad will is present on both sides.

“Those who’ve already started talking about leadership challenges the day after are actually letting the cat out of the bag -- that’s what they’re more interested in,” pro-EU former Justice Minister Damian Green told Channel 4 television on Monday.

Cameron’s Prospects

Under Conservative Party rules, a vote of confidence in the prime minister is triggered when 15 percent of Tory members of Parliament -- that’s 50 MPs at the moment -- write letters to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee. The belief in Cameron’s office, according to a person who worked there, is that 25 such letters were signed pretty much the day he became leader, in 2005. So he has always felt vulnerable.

Paradoxically, Cameron seems safest in the short term if he loses the Brexit vote. With the pound probably falling, “Leave” supporters across the party say there would be little appetite for the additional instability that would come from the prime minister’s resignation. He would probably have to make clear that he would be gone within a year, having set up the process of negotiating a Brexit. He might not mind that much: Cameron wanted his legacy to be a Conservative Party that worried about social justice and didn’t obsess with Europe. A Brexit would represent his final failure, and he’d have little appetite to see it through.

“I have not around Westminster seen any signs of personal acrimony,” the pro-Brexit leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling, told reporters in London Tuesday. “I do not feel that I am part of a party that is going to rip itself to pieces.”

The general view is that if “Remain” is above 55 percent, Cameron survives. The point of maximum danger would be in the event of a very tight result. His point in calling the referendum was to demonstrate that there was no public appetite for a Brexit. If, say, 49 percent of the electorate backed one, it would arguably be his energetic campaigning, and deployment of the Treasury and other arms of government, that made the difference. In that scenario, many lawmakers foresaw deep anger.

On Cameron’s side is a shift in the profile of the Parliamentary party. Less than 60 of his 330 MPs were shaped by the battles over Europe of the 1990s, whereas more than 200 were first elected in 2010 or 2015. While Cameron was blindsided by the number that chose to support a Brexit, many say privately that they’re not very exercised either way. These are ambitious men and women with their political careers ahead of them. They want to stop arguing with their prime minister and get on with climbing the greasy pole.

Cabinet Reshuffle

Lawmakers all expect Cameron to reorganize his ministerial team after the vote. An overhaul is a way to bring through new talent and give a government a fresh sense of purpose. It also gives the opportunity for punishment and reward.

As he approaches his “reconciliation reshuffle,” the prime minister will be constrained by the fact that, however the country as a whole voted, most Conservative members are likely to vote for Brexit. So he will have to bring in some prominent “Leave” supporters.

The weekend’s “escalation of the rumbling civil war” in his party leaves Cameron with a difficult decision if he wins -- “what does he do with those who broke the rules of engagement,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “In the end, he will probably keep them.” 

Boris Johnson has been too prominent not to get a role. Justice Secretary Michael Gove has been one of Cameron’s closest political friends, and his prison reform project is at the heart of Cameron’s post-referendum agenda. Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox has also been relatively restrained in attacking Cameron. Yet much depends on the result. If he wins by a very small margin, he may try to buy off Brexit backers by moving Osborne, whom many blame for the way the government pulled out all the stops for “Remain.”

Second Referendum?

Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum introduced a new phrase to the political lexicon: “neverendum.” Almost as soon as they had lost, some within the independence movement began calling for a rematch. The same might happen with Brexit.

Again, the margin of the result matters. If “Remain” goes above 60 percent, it should settle the question for some years. In Scotland, where the result was 55-45 against independence, cooler heads in the pro-camp said there was little profit in calling a second vote until they were sure enough people had changed their minds for them to win it.

The biggest factor after victory margin may be who succeeds Cameron as Tory leader and prime minister.

Succeeding Cameron

Every Monday evening, at a secret location in Westminster, Conservative MPs who support Brexit meet to discuss the campaign. They talk about policy questions, compare campaign techniques and discuss who should speak at which event. Tuesdays and Wednesdays bring smaller meetings for those at the top of the campaign, with drinks parties in the offices of ambitious Leavers.

These meetings allow Leavers to build networks. Under the rules of a Conservative leadership contest, MPs whittle down candidates to a final pair, who are then put to the national party membership in a straight vote. Whichever side candidates took in the Brexit debate is likely to be a key factor in both stages of the race.

That’s one reason Osborne has slipped from being favorite to succeed Cameron, replaced by Johnson. But Johnson has his own problems: The campaign has seen him struggle to make the shift from lovable joker to reassuring leader. Many Tories see the race as wide open. Hence another reason to put off a challenge to Cameron: It would allow time for other candidates to establish themselves.

“I want David Cameron to be prime minister right up until the next general election,” Gove told ITV’s “Good Morning Britain” program Tuesday, repeating a previous statement that he doesn’t want to lead the government. “The country voted for David to be prime minister in the general election last year. The reason we are having a referendum is the general election decides who the prime minister is, the referendum decides whether or not we stay in or out of the EU.”

But beware: if Brexit is a big issue in the contest, there’s the possibility of an ideological auction, with candidates bidding each other up to greater promises of Euroskepticism. However much the prospect of a second referendum might cause eye-rolling among the electorate at large, such a promise could well be popular among Tory members.

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