With David Cameron’s announcement that he will stand down as Prime Minister, we see the breaking on the wheel of European policy the career of the third Conservative Prime Minister in a row.
Margaret Thatcher was ousted from office ultimately because the pro-european wing of her Parliamentary Party, a significant section of its business funders, and the European political elite would no longer accept her euro-scepticism. John Major was rejected by the electorate because his government was weak and perceived to be failing as the anti-European section of his Party was furious over his signing of the Maastricht Treaty and made his political life a misery.
Now David Cameron, who announced the referendum back in January 2013 to buy party unity in the run-up to the May 2015 General Election, has paid the ultimate political price for his gamble that by a combination of fear and bluster he and his Chancellor, George Osborne, would persuade the people to vote to remain within the European Union.
For the Conservatives, as this column has consistently predicted, a decision to leave the EU is the least damaging for the Party politically and electorally. It was a Conservative Prime Minister who allowed the referendum, a [new] Conservative Prime Minister who will negotiate the terms of our exit, and it was, frankly, pressure from Conservative MPs both in Westminster and in their constituencies that made the poll happen and delivered the result with a little help from Ukip.
But what point is there now in Nigel Farage and his xenophobic party, Ukip? They’ve had the referendum that was their reason for being in existence. They’ve seen the nation vote to leave the European Union. They’ve put, rightly or wrongly, immigration and its control high on the political agenda. If the Conservatives can show Party unity now, and rebuild trust between their own different factions they may benefit from a real upswing in popularity as the next election approaches. How different it would have been for the centre and right parties if we had voted to remain within the European Union; the Conservatives would have been split asunder and cast out into the political wilderness for decades.
Ukip is now mainly a threat to Labour in its heartlands where the immigration issue resonates strongly. Labour is in a mess. The majority of its senior figures and Members of Parliament campaigned openly to remain within the Union, but they demonstrably failed to carry large sections of their natural supporters with them. Their Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, faced consistent criticisms throughout the referendum campaign of his lack-lustre and frankly ambivalent contribution. He is already facing a Leadership crisis and the Party is in meltdown.
The EU vote now behind us, there is little that the Liberal Democrats and Greens have to offer in terms of realistic electoral prospects or of policies that appeal to the centre and right of British politics which is where elections are won and lost. True, both parties are already making a pitch for the younger vote in response to the analysis that shows that the younger sections of the electorate were more likely to vote to remain than to leave, but the decision having been taken, and the minds of those in their late teens and early twenties being normally focused on other things, it’s unlikely that this ground is sufficiently fertile to be used to nurture a whole new generation of party political support.
The Scottish National Party has had a good referendum. It campaigned hard for remain, whilst criticising consistently and vociferously the negative campaign run by David Cameron and George Osborne. The result is that it can be pleased that it delivered a solid majority in Scotland for “Remain” whilst blaming the Conservative Government for a flawed campaign which led to the the Leave campaign triumphing.
It used to be said that a week is a long time in politics; nowadays, with social media, 24 hours can be an aeon. On polling day, the general consensus among the punditry of the nation was that the Remain campaign would win, and probably by a reasonable margin as the “shy remainers” turned out to vote for the status quo in greater numbers than the pollsters had predicted, just as the “shy Conservatives” turned out to give the party power in the general election in May 2015.
This led one prominent observer to comment that in this referendum David Cameron would secure his legacy as the man who served for two terms as a Conservative Prime Minister, buried Scottish independence with a referendum, and ended for ever the speculation that the United Kingdom would be better off outside the European Union.
A resurgent Scottish Nationalist Party has already served notice that the thumping support its people gave to remain within the European Union has put Scottish independence back on the political agenda and is calling for a second referendum. In short, David Cameron has not secured the legacy he sought or was predicted only hours before the close of polls. Far from it, he is leaving office early, his gamble on the EU referendum having bankrupted his political credibility, having seen our nation decide to quit the EU, and having exhumed and breathed new life into the corpse of Scottish Independence.
Those who write the history books of this period are unlikely to be kind to Mr Cameron or to Jeremy Corbyn.
One thing is certain, British political life has never been more uncertain. Who will be next Conservative Leader and Prime Minister? Who will replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader? On what basis will we engage with the European Union in future? How will we develop trading links with the Commonwealth, North America and the world’s other vibrant markets? Will the European Union survive or crumble, and will the Single European Currency collapse?
These are interesting and exciting, if inevitably somewhat uncertain, times. This column will continue to anticipate coming events, analyse current and recent ones, and encourage its readers to remain actively involved in politics to help shape the destination of our nation.
This article first appeared in The Catholic Universe of 1st July 2016
Cllr Chris Whitehouse KSG is Chairman of Westminster’s leading political consultancy, www.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk, Secretary of the Catholic Legislators’ Network, a Trustee of the Right To Life Charitable Trust, and a Member of the Isle of Wight Council (Cons. Newport West).