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The percentages we are familiar with were reversed. Remain won the EU referendum by 52 per cent to 48 per cent. And it settled nothing – for three main reasons.
First, David Cameron’s EU deal stood, since Britain voted to stay, and disillusion with it swiftly set in – most notoriously because the EU institutions refused Cameron the use of the “emergency break” on immigration that he had negotiated; which in any case was a break not on numbers but on welfare, and which in any event didn’t meet the 2015 Conservative Manifesto pledge that EU migrants would have to pay into the system for four years before they became eligible to receive welfare.
Second, it soon became evident that whatever Cameron meant by a UK exemption from “ever-closer union”, also a part of his deal, was very different from what many voters, most Conservative members, lots of Tory MPs and a fair number of Ministers understood by it. For example, there was a dickens of a row over the EU’s 1.8 trillion euro Covid Recovery Fund – with the Government coming under pressure from the backbenches to join Poland and Hungary in threatening a veto.
Third, UKIP is still bobbing around today on about 15 per cent, roughly where it was in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. Nigel Farage is looking to exploit resentment about Covid restrictions among small businesses and the private sector amidst his unyielding calls for a second referendum: like Nicola Sturgeon on Scottish independence, he wants a re-run. That might not matter were it not for the political context.
For there was no 2017 general election, and no 2019 one, either – just about. Post-referendum, the Conservative 2015 majority of 12 was whittled down to five. Cameron wasn’t able after his narrow 2015 election win to get much through Parliament pre-referendum (remember those backbench revolts on disability benefits, Sunday trading, tax credits, academisation and much else). After the result, his room for manoeuvre shrank further – with a sore, bruised and angry European Research Group acting as a constant thorn in his side.
In any event, Cameron stood down as Prime Minister in 2017. He had said that he would not contest a third general election as Conservative leader and kept his word. His efforts to heal the Tory wounds post-referendum did not succeed, despite the appointment of Boris Johnson as Defence Secretary. The collective self-inflicted wound of the 2017 Conservative leadership election put pay to any prospect of it.
For Johnson, his standing with the Tory grassroots boosted further by “my openness to a second referendum”, was carved out of the membership stage of the contest by a characteristically ruthless George Osborne Commons operation. He was not one of the two candidates to go forward to the members. Osborne was one of them, but a big slice of activists blamed him both for “Remain’s referendum lies” and for Johnson’s absence from the ballot.
So the other candidate is Conservative leader and Prime Minister today: namely, Theresa May – demoted by Cameron to Leader of the House post-referendum for not sticking to the Remain script during it, but now in place. Her pitch to members was that she “could foresee circumstances” in which a second referendum might be justified. She is now under further pressure to deliver one after her disastrous general election of last spring, in which a manifesto commitment on social care backfired, removing her majority.
Osborne left the Commons last summer, is the recently-appointed Editor of the Sunday Times, has eight other jobs of one sort of another, and is somehow also heading up next year’s COP26 climate summit on behalf of the UK. Johnson is still Defence Secretary, engaged in spectacular rows with Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, over his department’s budget – almost as vituperative as those between Farage and Douglas Carswell, who held on to his Clacton seat last summer, and has been joined by five other UKIP MPs.
As we write, May, in consultation with David Frost, her new Chief of Staff, and Stephen Parkinson, her Political Secretary, is drawing up “five tests for future EU membership”. Hammond is fighting, in concert with Rory Stewart, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and a body of other committed Cabinet Remainers, to ensure that these are designed so that the UK can never leave. Johnson is fighting back, with Michael Gove, a rehabilitated Liam Fox and others to ensure that they are. The ERG is working closely with Carswell and is in semi-open revolt.
Nicola Sturgeon is dangling possible support for a second EU referendum as the price for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Jeremy Corbyn, widely praised in Westminster for his “masterly inactivity” during the 2016 referendum campaign, keeps hinting at support for the first only to be persistently contradicted by John McDonnell, now Labour’s Deputy Leader. Another election soon cannot be ruled out…
The point we are laboriously making is that in most alternative universes there is no agreed EU membership settlement in Britain – to be contrasted with the present trade talks impasse and the possibility of No Deal.
There is only a continuing political crisis which Cameron’s referendum win failed to settle. The great story of the UK’s contested relationship with the rest of Europe goes on, because geography, politics and culture dictate the nature of it.