Cameron and Boris have sent Britain hurtling towards the EU exit

In a dramatic shift, both the PM and the Mayor now speak of EU withdrawal as a reasonable option.

When Michael Gove declared earlier this year that Britain should be prepared to leave the EU if Brussels refuses to return major powers to Westminster, his comments were viewed as extraordinary. But his words have now been all but echoed by the country's two most senior Conservatives: Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

Asked on Sunday on The Andrew Marr Show whether Britain should be prepared to walk away from the EU if it can't secure the concessions it wants, Johnson replied: "That is correct,  that's absolutely correct ... I mean I don't think it would be the end of the world. Don’t forget that 15 years ago the entire CBI, British Industry, the City, everybody was prophesying that there’d be gigantic mutant rats with two or three eyes swarming out of the gutters, the sewers, to gnaw the faces of the remaining British bankers because we didn’t go into the euro."

Yesterday in the Commons, mindful of the evolving threat from UKIP, David Cameron said that withdrawal from the EU was "imaginable".

"We are in charge of own destiny, we can make our own choices."

There we have it. EU withdrawal is not something that no sensible person should countenance but one of a menu of plausible policy options. In November, Angela Merkel declared: "I cannot imagine Britain not being part of Europe." Cameron has made it clear that he can. Having conceded as much, it will now be significantly harder for him to persuade his MPs and the public that they should not vote in favour of withdrawal if and when a referendum is held.

When he finally makes his speech on Europe in mid-January, Cameron will announce that a Conservative government would hold a referendum offering voters a choice between a looser relationship and none at all, an effective in/out plebiscite. The Prime Minister's hope is that the concessions he will extract from Brussels in areas such as social policy and justice, will convince his party that the benefits of membership outweigh the costs. But it is doubtful whether Barrasso and co. will play ball. As Nick Clegg declared in his recent speech on Europe, "It is wishful thinking to suggest we could effectively give ourselves a free pass to undercut the Single Market, only to then renegotiate our way back in to the laws that suit us." 

He rightly added: "And let’s be honest: many of the people who advocate repatriation are the same people who want us out of Europe – full stop." If Cameron wants to prevent them winning the debate, he needs to make an unambiguous and positive case for EU membership. So long as he is either unwilling or unable to do so, Britain will continue to hurtle towards the exit.

David Cameron said that UK withdrawal from the EU was "imaginable". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.