James Forsyth: Don't Rule out a Second Referendum

By Forsyth, James | The Spectator, May 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

James Forsyth: Don't Rule out a Second Referendum


Forsyth, James, The Spectator


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. …

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