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What will happen after the referendum?

A quick examination of the Tory project whatever the results shows worrying prospects.

David Cameron and Boris Johnson, photo: World Economic Forum

Boris Johnson has achieved the remarkable feat of making David Cameron (‘PR Dave’) look principled. While Johnson’s ‘agonising’ Brexit choice – apparently after drafting two opposing articles for the Daily Telegraph – was transparently opportunist, Cameron’s ‘Remain’ looks like a strategic decision. Unlike Johnson’s, the prime minister’s deceitful hype surrounding the British ‘renegotiation’ was limited to the tactical. 

With this knowledge, what should we make of the divide in the ruling Conservative party, and how will it be affected by the outcome of the 23 June referendum? Where could the referendum lead, not only for Britain and the EU, but for British politics in general? This article is an attempt to explore the challenge which faces all concerned with where the Tories’ division on Europe is leading them – and those they rule over.

Deep differences at the top?

Although Cameron and Johnson are antagonists, there is no ideological and strategic chasm between them. Both are culturally Europhile but politically soft-Eurosceptic. Johnson is no more a ‘swivel-eyed loon’ than Cameron is a EU enthusiast (his former spin-doctor Steve Hilton even claims that he was privately for leaving).

Cameron and Johnson share the general Tory scepticism towards progressive EU legislation and European justice, while recognising the economic advantages of the Single European Market and the free movement of labour. While only Johnson has actually opted for ‘out’, Cameron obviously wagered (when he promised a referendum) that, in the end, Britain could live with an exit.

The question is whether these shared commitments, underpinned by a common formation and deep class ties, will enable them to overcome the antagonisms of the campaign and cooperate in the aftermath of the vote. There are good reasons to think that they will have little alternative but to do so, to avoid a deep party split and a catastrophic, Tory-made crisis in the British economy.

Who would call the shots in a Brexit Tory government?

It is very clear that this will be needed if Brexit wins. Any majority for ‘Leave’ will probably be tiny. Domestic legitimacy will be small and international legitimacy minimal. Cameron and his putative successor, George Osborne, will have suffered a devastating political defeat. The stock market and the pound will suffer immediate hits. The Tories will be straining to avoid compounding the atmosphere of political and economic crisis with a full-scale party struggle.

It seems likely that in these circumstances even Johnson would see the need to maintain a veneer of leadership continuity and party unity. Cameron has signalled via the reliable Matthew d’Ancona that he really would stay on. It would probably suit Johnson to let the departing PM deal with the immediate fallout and steady the ship. In the meanwhile, Johnson would be brought into one of the major offices of state (in which he has never served), a surer base from which to launch his leadership bid in due course.

From Cameron’s point of view, this outcome would avoid compounding the humiliation of defeat with his own abrupt removal from office and gain him credit for dealing with the national crisis. It might (just possibly) enable Osborne to rebuild his position for the leadership contest.

Moreover a narrow Brexit and the fact that Cameron and Johnson would probably have to hang together in the first stages point to a Norway-style solution. Since the referendum will not commit the UK to a particular ‘out’ relationship, Parliament would be able to veto a departure from the Single Market. The hardcore Europhobes would get neither the deep separation nor the low migration that they crave. 

… and with Bremain?

In the (currently more probable) event of a modest Remain win, Cameron and Johnson would probably still need to work together. To rebuild Tory unity, Cameron would need to be magnanimous to the Brexiteers, and Johnson is the only essential person in the thin Brexit leadership. Iain Duncan Smith has burned his bridges, and neither the quixotic Michael Gove nor the illiberal Chris Grayling, let alone Priti Patel, is a substantial enough figure to strongly represent the Leave side in a unity government.

Only in the event of a substantial Remain victory could Cameron exclude Johnson, but then he might well stoke civil war in the party and the latter’s victory in the leadership contest which is expected before 2020. It is always better to have your rival inside the tent, pissing out.

Camerons signals 

Cameron may not be a real One Nation Tory, but his commitment to a single party is not in serious doubt. He and Osborne have also shown themselves astute in avoiding the Downing Street rivalries which bedevilled the Blair-Brown governments. 

His decision to avoid any sort of TV debate with Johnson, and to have only indirect encounters with other Tory Brexiteers, is surely a signal of the importance he attaches to rebuilding party unity after the referendum campaign. 

Johnson needs party unity ...

While Johnson appears more single-mindedly egotistical, it is also in his interest to maintain the veneer of party unity and to rebuild it substantially after the referendum. His was, after all, a win-win choice, premised on the probability that Brexit was unlikely but that he who had nobly backed it would gain support among the ageing, xenophobic party selectorate.

In this context, being seen as a catalyst of party division is probably the main thing that could seriously damage Johnson’s chances. This would open the way if not to Osborne then to Theresa May, who has deftly qualified her ‘Remain’ stance with a call for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (membership in which is separate from the EU).

… and avoids commitments

This is doubtless why Johnson has avoided commitments on the key issues. Having toyed successively with a second referendum to ‘re-enter’ the EU and then with Norway and Canada scenarios, has not committed himself to any one model of the UK’s post-Brexit relationship. He has not protested at Gove’s proclamation that the UK will leave the Single Market, but he is hardly bound by his colleague’s opinion. 

This is doubtless also why Johnson has criticised Cameron for making promises he couldn’t keep about migration, but has not made any promises himself. While UKIP’s Nigel Farage has talked of limiting immigration to 50,000 a year and Duncan Smith has resurrected the Government’s 100,000 target, Johnson has refused to acknowledge that an overall target is desirable, even if he has opined that the latter target ‘could’ be met.

The new Tory project

Obviously Brexit might well upset the best intentions of a Cameron-Johnson rapprochement. However, in the event of a narrow Remain win (the current central projection), the government will emphasise measures like the repeal of the Human Rights Act (announced in the Queen’s Speech) which will appeal to the frustrated Tory Right, even if they will not satisfy the hard-core Europhobes.

Let us not forget that apart from Europe, the Tory leadership is broadly united across the Brexit divide around a radical project for change, even if a minority of nervous backbenchers have joined the Opposition in frustrating successive measures. Cameron’s style has been mostly more patrician than Margaret Thatcher’s, but his government’s project builds on hers and is arguably even more radical.

Often characterised as ‘shrinking’ the state and ‘privatising’ services, the Tory project is actually more complex. While some areas of the state (welfare, social housing, local government) are being drastically shrunk, the wider aim (affecting even areas like health and education where spending is maintained) is a partial decomposition of the state, allowing its creeping colonisation by private capital. 

The ‘internal’ state

This approach is widely applied to what we may call the ‘internal’ state, i.e. state institutions which point inwards to the national society. Its most striking expression was the Lansley reorganisation of the National Health Service, which was broken up into a bewildering array of trusts, commissioning groups and property agencies that would relate to each other through an extended ‘internal market’ with enhanced opportunities for private health firms to enter.

Since their unexpected win in 2015, the Tories have lost little time in widely extending this approach to other areas. Building on New Labour’s initiative, the majority of secondary schools had already been made Academies under the Coalition, with local government control replaced by chains of schools under private trusts, and a new category of state-funded ‘free schools’ was created. Although the government has recently retreated on a proposal to extend ‘academisation’ to all the remaining secondaries and even to primary schools, a century and a half of democratic local control of schools has been deeply undermined.

Elected local government in England, of similar longevity, is also a target of ambitious change, involving patchwork ‘devolution’ to a motley array of combined local authorities through business-dominated ‘quangos’ called Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs). Each local consortium is offered enhanced control over a small portion of the rapidly diminishing central funding for local services. Unlike Scottish and Welsh devolution, no new institutions or democratic rights are proposed, except for requirements that most deals are accompanied by elected mayors for what are often incoherent amalgamations of local areas.

These and other changes, some of which were not in the Tory election manifesto, are being pursued through ruthless exploitation of Britain’s system of ‘elective dictatorship’ which has given Cameron an absolute majority for 37 per cent of the vote. In tandem, the Tories are aiming to reduce the numbers of MPs, in changes likely to benefit their party, while refusing to reform the larger and anachronistic House of Lords.

Brexit and the ‘external’ state

In many ways, Brexit is coherent with this project, extending these changes to the ‘external’ state, through which Britain is linked to the wider world. Brexit would dismantle the EU’s social and environmental regulation of Britain, as other Tory policies are dismantling the domestic welfare state. This is why it has such appeal in the Tory ranks. As Jeremy Corbyn suggested, it would involve a ‘bonfire of rights’, abolishing a swathe of EU rules which protect workers, women and nature.

There is no reason to believe that Cameron and Osborne would regret these changes any more than the Brexiteers. The Tory divide on Brexit is limited mainly to the Single Market, which the government, most businesses, especially large and multinational, and even Johnson see as valuable for Britain’s economic success.

However the prime minister and chancellor must also oppose Brexit because they are acutely aware of the general damage likely to British international standing. Brexit would not immediately affect Britain’s membership of NATO, its seat on the United Nations Security Council, or its role in the International Monetary Fund, but it would change its real position in all of these, with serious reputational consequences.

Virtually no European or world leader sees the point of the UK leaving the EU, and many fear its knock-on effects not only on the rest of the EU but on the world economy and global political stability. While Johnson can shrug off these issues (for the time being), they must clearly weigh with those who have to explain Brexit to their fellow leaders.

A new authoritarian populism? 

Johnson is currently riding a pro-Brexit tide of nationalism and racism, even if he leaves UKIP to do the dirty work. Cameron and Osborne, on the other hand, believe they can batter it down with sufficiently powerful deployment of the state machine, international allies and mass media.

This is, in itself, a tactical difference. Cameron and Johnson are generally united in their exploitative attitude to racism. Both believe that they can switch on populist sentiment (stoking anti-Scottish fear in England, promoting Islamophobia in London) in pursuit of their electoral goals.

They may agree on one more near-future scenario. At some point after the referendum, the Conservative party will attempt to renew itself under a new leader. If Brexit wins or performs strongly, however, the temptation to capitalise electorally on the xenophobia of the Leave campaign – rather as Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP capitalised on the rather different nationalism of the Scottish referendum – will be strong. The Tories will not want to leave UKIP a free hand to mobilise a resurgent racist nationalism.

This danger will be particularly strong if Johnson wins out. This Tory Trump – not, pace Kenneth Clarke, a ‘nicer’ one but an English one – could offer Britain a new style of leadership, with indulgence from a sycophantic media. A folksy new ‘authoritarian populism’, 21st century in style but reminiscent of Thatcher’s, could extend Tory rule into a second decade, with a snap general election providing five more years’ legitimation for the whole package of unpopular policies. This is the big latent danger of the Brexit vote.

About the author

Martin Shaw is a political sociologist interested in war, genocide and racism, who now works on political change in Britain. His website is here. He is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals(IBEI), professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton, and emeritus professor the University of Sussex. Among his books are The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005) and What is Genocide? (2nd edition, Polity, 2015). 

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