“I DON’T want to stab the prime minister in the back—I want to stab him in the front so I can see the expression on his face. You’d have to twist the knife, though, because we want it back for [George] Osborne.” This quote, attributed to a Conservative MP by the Sunday Times yesterday, indicates the headache that awaits the prime minister beyond June 23rd. As the referendum nears, the chances of a Tory leadership crisis afterwards, even in the event of a Remain vote, seem to be growing. Andrew Bridgen and Nadine Dorries, two perennial rebels, have insisted that he will face a challenge. Or as their anonymous colleague puts it: “All we have to do is catch the prime minister with a live boy or a dead girl and we are away.”
What is Mr Cameron to do? It seems that in the event of a Remain vote on June 23rd, Downing Street will delay its much-heralded “reconciliation reshuffle” until after the summer, to prevent MPs and ministers from pocketing their preferments and immediately opening fire on the prime minister. In the intervening period it will be tempting for him, having spent the preceding weeks alienating many in his party by telling them truths about Brexit that they do not want to hear, to swing back in a drastically Eurosceptic direction and shore up his position. He might pick some fights at the European Council summit on June 28th, for example.
Tempting, but ill-advised. However decisive any Remain win (the Brexiteers are claiming 60% is the minimum the prime minister must achieve to avoid revolt) it is unlikely that the Europe question will vanish. The Leave campaign will do everything it can to claim the public was misled and will demand a new referendum. Every future European summit will ignite the Conservative Party’s nervous system. It may well elect a pro-Brexit leader as Mr Cameron’s successor. Pandering to such sentiments will only strengthen them, and convince their propagators that they were right all along.
Yet if he wins—whatever the margin; ignore Brexiteer nonsense about 59% for Remain somehow not counting—Mr Cameron will have a pro-European mandate. Stronger In, the official anti-Brexit outfit, has campaigned on the premise that Britain should not just stay in the EU but work to make it better. The prime minister will have the responsibility to make good on that pledge. Moreover, he will have the opportunity. Britain’s voice in Brussels has been weakened by the build-up to the referendum. But the process of renegotiation strengthened Mr Cameron’s personal relationship with his fellow leaders. And a Remain victory (especially at a time when the EU is struggling in other respects) will prove to his partners Mr Cameron can persuade and deliver. However fleetingly, he will be a winner.
So to make the most of this opportunity, make good on his campaign promises and help quell talk of a second referendum, the prime minister must, on any Remain win, launch a British initiative to make Europe more dynamic. Brexiteers talk of June 24th as “independence day”. If they lose, Mr Cameron must make it “interdependence day”: using the momentum the result generates to promote necessary reforms that would make Europe work better for Britain and its neighbours: completing the single market in services, cutting red tape and advancing the TTIP negotiations.
This would start with Mr Cameron taking some time from calming his backbenchers in Westminster to tour Europe’s capitals to build a new alliance for reform with Britain at its hub—building on his previous “renegotiation” charm offensive, but this time more collaborative and long-termist. In the likes of Matteo Renzi, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, as well as Britain’s traditional allies in the Nordic and Baltic regions, Mr Cameron has natural allies. At the same time he could launch initiatives to boost Britain’s structural influence in Brussels. More British graduates and top civil servants could be encouraged and supported to apply for jobs in the institutions. To raise the standard of Britain’s MEPs, Mr Cameron could establish an “A-list” of talented Conservatives ahead of selections for the European Parliament election in 2019 (and encourage Labour to do the same). Downing Street could get a proper European department to improve the quality and quantity of EU advice available to the prime minister.
Nonetheless, the prime minister cannot be expected to do this alone. It will take a popular initiative to support him when he does the right thing and chide him when he gives in to the Eurosceptics. Fortunately, such a body—cross-party, decentralised and united by its commitment to an effective, energetic British role in Europe—will already exist on June 24th: the Remain campaign. From its leadership to its local groups, in Britain and abroad, this is a ready-made, non-partisan network, backed by donors large and small, capable of insisting forcefully on greater British engagement and assertiveness on the continent. It will be too easy for a Remain win to be hollow: for noisy Eurosceptic campaigners successfully to spin it as a betrayal, for the pro-European alliances built up over the past months to disintegrate and for the mandate to “stay in and make it better” to go forgotten.
And what if Leave wins? In that case, all the more reason for its opponents to stick together. What Britain would or should look like outside the EU is unclear. The range of trade-offs that Britons will have to navigate is conveyed by the number of different “models” the Brexiteers have cited: Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Albania… Will freedom of movement continue? What status will EU citizens in Britain have? What sort of trading relationship will Britain have with its neighbours, and at what regulatory cost? The differences between between the different possible visions of a post-Brexit country are huge and will need debating. That demands intense political effort from those committed to keeping Britain as relevant and engaged in Europe as possible, one that the existing Stronger In campaign will, even in defeat, be perfectly placed to orchestrate. With luck, it will not come to that. But whatever the result on June 23rd, Remain must fight on.