In his 2013 speech promising an EU referendum, David Cameron declared that it was “time to settle” the “European question in British politics”. The Prime Minister aspired not merely to win the vote but to resolve his party’s decades-long schism.
An ambition that once appeared doubtful now looks risible. Rather than settling the European question, the referendum has only sharpened it. Cameron and George Osborne on one side, and Boris Johnson and Michael Gove on the other, have repeatedly charged each other with lying and worse.
At the time of writing, a Remain victory appears most likely. Most polls have the two sides neck-and-neck and the undecided (around 10 per cent) lean towards the status quo. For a cautious UK electorate, the economic risks of Brexit should trump hostility to EU immigration. As I noted at the outset of the campaign in April, every recent referendum and election has been won by the side most trusted with voters’ finances.
But any Remain victory is unlikely to be of the scale required to settle the question. Indeed, even a landslide win would be no guarantee. History could have told Cameron as much. In 1975, the UK voted by 67-33 to remain in the European Economic Community. Just six years later, Labour, which staged the referendum, endorsed immediate withdrawal.
Left-wing euroscepticism receded as the European Commission became a bulwark against Thatcherism. Its right-wing equivalent correspondingly increased. But it was not until this decade that an appreciable number of Tory MPs backed Brexit. A party that was once divided between europhiles and eurosceptics is now torn between Remainers and Leavers. Nearly half of all Conservative MPs endorsed withdrawal. A Tory minister told me that “two-thirds” were Brexiters “in their hearts”. He spoke of knowing winks and nudges from cabinet ministers officially on the opposing side.
The European question will not endure among a weary public. Should Remain win, there will be no mass movement to rival Scotland’s “45 per cent”. Ukip will not achieve an SNP-style landslide at the next general election. But it is a certainty that many Tories will repudiate Cameron’s 2006 advice and keep “banging on about Europe”. The Prime Minister’s successor, as he privately acknowledges, will likely be a Brexiter. Few voters rank the EU as one of their top ten concerns. Few Tory members rank it outside of their top three.
A Remain victory will not be regarded by Leavers as a definitive endorsement of the EU. Rather, it will be heralded as proof that voters were duped by “Project Fear”. The grievances itemised throughout the campaign, such as the government’s £9.3m leaflet campaign and the Treasury’s economic warnings, will be repeatedly recalled.There is a readymade audience for this. A YouGov poll found that 46 per cent of Leave supporters believed the result would “probably” be altered by the authorities.
The Brexiters will come to resemble their Scottish counterparts, who began by speaking of a “generational” decision before almost immediately hinting at a second referendum. Though he later retreated to the former line, Boris Johnson warned midway through the campaign that it would be “difficult for the British people” to accept EU membership in future years.
Referendums rarely settle matters because the momentous subjects on which they are held do not permit compromise. “I’ve campaigned on this for 30 years, I’m not going to change my opinion about the need for democracy,” Bill Cash MP told me. “I don’t believe that the EU is capable of it”. Though some Leavers share Cameron’s desire to cease the quarrel, plenty echo Cash’s view. “These things don’t matter to most people but they matter to us,” a backbencher told me. “We really do lie awake at night worrying about sovereignty.”
It was to address this anxiety that Cameron’s EU renegotiation included an exemption for the UK from “ever closer union”. But in the absence of treaty change, Leavers contend that this guarantee is worthless. Should it eventually take place, they believe that the “referendum lock” introduced in the last parliament will be activated. “There will have to be one [a referendum] on treaty change,” former cabinet minister John Redwood told me. “We’ve been told that this deal requires it.” If the EU establishes political and fiscal union to underpin monetary union, some Tories will demand a second referendum on the grounds that the facts have changed.
Should the UK vote to leave, the EU question will be resolved but others will not. The Brexiters will need to choose whether to maintain their pledge to withdraw from the single market (in order to end the free movement of people) or whether to adopt the purgatorial arrangement favoured by Norway and Switzerland. An overwhelmingly pro-Remain parliament could obstruct full economic secession. Some believe that an early general election (or a new referendum) would be an inevitable consequence of Brexit as Johnson and Gove seek an unambiguous mandate for their stance.
The EU campaign has awakened and intensified divisions that will outlast it. Labour is increasingly split between those who regard limits on free movement as essential (such as deputy leader Tom Watson) and those who regard them as impossible (such as Jeremy Corbyn). Tory Brexiters have issued demands for higher NHS spending that they cannot credibly rescind. But it is the very question the referendum was designed to answer that could endure most of all.
In a 1975 Commons debate, as she argued against an EEC referendum, Margaret Thatcher cited Roy Jenkins’s warning three years earlier: “Once the principle of the referendum has been introduced into British politics, it will not rest with any one party to put a convenient limit to its use”. Having been invited once to rule on the EU, the likelihood is that the demos will be summoned again. For future Conservative leadership candidates, the hint of a second referendum will be irresistible. Rather than the denouement of the Tories’ European saga, we have merely witnessed another chapter.