Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
An apocryphal aphorism coined by a firebrand left-wing legend might not be an obvious way to start a discussion about what could happen to the Conservative Party in the wake of the EU Referendum, but Nye Bevan surely had a point when he asked ‘Why gaze into the crystal ball when you can read it in the book?’ The past may be a foreign country but it’s often a better guide to the future than even the best-informed best-guesses.
The problem, however, in this case is that just about the only book anyone seems to have read is the one which features Robert Peel’s decision back in the mid-nineteenth century to repeal the Corn Laws – a move that triggered a huge split in the Tory Party and put it out of power for decades. Rarely, these days, does one read a column talking about the Conservatives contemporary travails over Europe which doesn’t make at least a passing mention of the precedent. I should know: I’ve written one or two of them myself.
Yet, to enter a plea in mitigation, I’ve only done so to make the point that, even if it is the first example for which everyone wanting to demonstrate a portentous sense of historical perspective reaches, it’s not actually very useful.
For one thing, Peel’s decision was so divisive because it was so obviously at odds with what the vast bulk of the Tory Party at the time stood for – both ideologically and in terms of the socio-economic interests it represented. This is not the case with Cameron’s decision to back remaining in the EU – a position supported by, let’s not forget, the majority of his colleagues in Cabinet and in the Commons, as well as by many of those who’ve backed the Conservatives financially over the years. Moreover, whereas Peel’s move represented a break with the status quo, Cameron’s stance merely confirms it.
For another, the parties and party system of 1840s were nowhere near, to lapse into social-science-speak, so institutionalised as their equivalents today, when parties are (relatively, at least!) disciplined outfits with fairly clearly-defined programmes on which they are regularly held to account by a mass electorate and a mass media. This has been the case in liberal democracies all over the world since 1945, and one would be hard-pressed to think of a single mainstream centre-right party that has melted down or smashed itself to pieces over even the most fundamental of internal disagreements. The idea that this would happen to a party operating, as the Tories do, in a first-past-the-post system that mercilessly punishes small and splinter parties is even more far-fetched.
So the crystal ball it will have to be – and gazing into it gives us two obvious scenarios.
First up: we vote to remain. In which case David Cameron is highly unlikely to attempt a ‘revenge reshuffle’ in order to see off the sceptics: he lacks the strength to do it and anyway it’s not his style. Instead, he, and even some on the other side, will try to forgive and forget – and to prove that you can indeed put the genie back in the bottle.
Whatever the margin, however, this won’t provide a miracle cure for the Conservative Party’s problems over Europe. Instead those problems will return, at least for a while, to being chronic rather than acute, although they will doubtless flare up again as soon as Brexiteers feel they’ve left a decent interval or Brussels decides to amend a treaty, whichever is the sooner.
If, on the other hand, we vote to leave, things may actually be easier – certainly in the long term. In the short term, of course, Cameron might have to go, although maybe not quite as quickly (or as willingly) as many assume. Meanwhile, those who joined him in campaigning to remain will accept the will of the people: after all, they’re pragmatists – that’s why, some would say, they’re in the Remain camp in the first place. Just as importantly, they will be supported, rather than summarily executed, by the majority of those in the victorious Leave camp, most of whom, it is all-too-easily-forgotten, are grown-ups too.
Leaving might also have an upside in the sense of encouraging the Tories to turn to what some people (and most voters) regard as more pressing matters – the economy, housing, social care, the NHS and the slow-down in social mobility. As long as the party’s Ayn Rand faction doesn’t interpret victory in the referendum as a mandate to drag the party way off to the unchained right, a chance to re-focus in this way can only be to the good.
But leaving throws up a potential downside for the party too. If Brexit does trigger a leadership contest, whoever wins it will face huge pressure to seek a personal mandate via an early election. Gordon Brown’s experience will weigh heavily, as will the overwhelming likelihood of an easy victory over a Labour Party which is at best out of sorts and at worst out of its mind.
The Conservatives would win that election, yes. But Corbyn would lose it – and badly. A 1983-style defeat would offer Labour a chance to come to its senses much earlier than might otherwise be the case and mean that the Tories could face an election in, say, 2023 against a much more formidable opponent – possibly against the backdrop of a) an economy still struggling to recover from the initial shock of Brexit and b) net migration figures which Brexit had done little or nothing to reduce.
All of which recalls another aphorism, although not, this time, one we can attribute to anyone in particular: ‘Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.’