Bored with the UK’s EU referendum? Don’t worry, it’s nearly over with less than 48 hours to go. But brace yourself.
The British may yet be called on to do it all over again. This is far from certain – certainty, of course, is in short supply in this debate about the country’s future. But warning signs are there for all to see.
Before getting on to that, let’s dismiss one scenario raised briefly by Boris Johnson before he threw his considerable weight behind the Leave camp. It runs something like this. In the event of a narrow leave vote, the resident of Number 10 (whoever that might be) would go to Brussels and argue for more concessions to put to a second popular vote.
The sight of Brexiteers who have longed sneered at the EU for rerunning popular votes attempting to pull off the same trick themselves would clearly be entertaining. And there is a certain practical logic behind the idea. Better all round, surely, to extract a few small concessions to spare everyone the nightmare of negotiating a whole new relationship between Britain and the Union? However, it is not going to happen. Politically, a new leader could not ignore the expressed wish of the British people – however confused that wish may in fact be.
It is in the longer term that we need to look for the prospect of a second referendum. In the event of a close run vote for Remain – particularly if such a result was delivered by a relatively small turnout – Brexit campaigners would not go quietly into the night. Nigel Farage has already raised the prospect that such an outcome would lead to immediate calls for a rerun.
And two clusters of factors bolster the odds of this happening. The first relate to the nature of the campaign itself. The mobilization of the machinery of government behind the ‘remain’ campaign has left a bad taste in the mouth of many of their opponents. Stories concerning the refusal to share government papers with even Cabinet Ministers who had backed ‘Leave’ led to early accusations of a stitch up. And the fact that the government splurged more than is legally permissible for either formal campaign to distribute a leaflet to over 20 million households simply adds grist to the Leaver’s mill. Expect the mantra of a ‘rigged referendum’ to be repeated long and loud in the event of a close Remain vote.
Second, there is politics. The full implications of the referendum for the British party system cannot yet be discerned. Implications, however, there will be aplenty. It is perfectly possible that UKIP will emerge from the campaign stronger than ever. Their ground campaign seems to have been well organized and well-motivated, which will serve them well in political struggles to come.
Moreover, the prevalence of UKIP-type messages even on the part of the non – UKIP Vote Leave Campaign – is striking. Immigration is becoming an ever more central theme. And the anti-elite rhetoric on the part of senior Conservatives like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove plays into the insurgency narrative that UKIP has long fostered. The overall tone of both campaigns, moreover, could well help bring mainstream politics into further disrepute. And, last but by no means least, it looks as though significantly over 40% of those who vote in June will support a proposition backed only by UKIP.
Of course, a UKIP surge will hinge on ability of the party to control the various jealousies and animosities within its own leadership. Should they manage this, however, they should be able to build on foundations laid during this campaign and emerge capable of threatening both Tory unity (defections are possible) and Labour domination of its working class heartlands.
The crucial point here is that the dominant tendency of mainstream parties when confronting this sort of threat has generally been to pander to it. Policies ranging from Gordon Brown’s ill-fated ‘British jobs for British workers’, to the decision by David Cameron to promise this referendum in the first place can be traced back to the UKIP challenge. It is at least conceivable, then, that UKIP may follow in the footsteps of the SNP in losing a referendum but winning the subsequent politics and thereby keeping the referendum issue on the political agenda.
And its ability to do so will only be enhanced by the politics of the Tory party itself. The Conservatives have long been divided over the question of the EU, but this referendum has brought the split into sharp relief. Almost half the parliamentary party has decided not to support the Prime Minister’s position. Polls indicate that a higher proportion amongst the membership are committed to Brexit. At some point in the next 3 years, the party will have to elect a new leader. Assuming a narrow Remain victory later this month, it is inconceivable that the EU will not be a – if not the – major issue. And the electoral system favours the more Eurosceptic amongst the candidates – it is ultimately the membership and not the parliamentary party that make the decision.
So, with a potentially energized UKIP worrying away at their right flank, if the Conservatives elect a Brexiteer to lead them, it is hard to see how the issue of a rerun will not be raised. This may not be immediate – but then again it hardly needs to be, given the electoral prospects of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. What it does mean, though, is that the UK’s EU membership will remain contested and it is only a matter of time before some pretext is found to put it to the electorate. Again. For the remain side, it is not only winning that matters, but winning well, if only to spare us a rerun of this agony.
By Professor Anand Menon, Director of The UK in a Changing Europe