Matthew Parris has raised the subject. Here are some arguments either way.
- Yes, Cameron should resign if Scotland votes Yes. Under his leadership, the Government allowed the referendum to take place, and its terms to be established. He is therefore responsible for the referendum’s date and terms: the lack of a turnout threshold, 16 year olds being allowed to vote – and Scots living outside Scotland not being allowed to vote. He tried to call Alex Salmond’s bluff and had his own called instead. He is the Prime Minister who lost the United Kingdom, and he must therefore go.
- No, Cameron should not resign if Scotland votes Yes. Cameron had no alternative but to let the referendum take place, and little over its date and terms. He cannot fairly be blamed either for the estrangement between England and Scotland, which pre-dates him, or for the failures of the No campaign, which was led by Labour. It would be perverse to make Cameron carry the can for Alistair Darling’s errors. Indeed, it was Labour’s insistence on devolution that whetted rather than sated the separatist appetite in the first place. Furthermore, it would be unfair to make Cameron shoulder the blame for decisions which compromise his entire Cabinet. George Osborne threatened Scotland with the loss of the pound. Alistair Carmichael and Michael Moore were respectively in place as Scottish Secretaries, having a major say in the No campaign’s strategy. This is a reminder that the Liberal Democrats are just as implicated as the Conservatives – so if Cameron goes, Nick Clegg should go too. Besides, it would be absurd for a Tory to take over as Prime Minister who shared collective Cabinet responsibility for the referendum decisions.
Some observations on both cases:
- Both have one big point in common: their reasoning is political, not constitutional. Because there is no constitutional precedent for losing the Union – were that to happen – Cameron’s fate would be decided by the shifting winds of political reality rather than the iron form of a rule book. What would probably matter most would be the views of his Party and Conservative MPs. So the question turns out less to be should he resign than would he resign? (Or be forced to.)
- The case for Cameron staying is longer than the case for his going. This can either be read as a sign that it is is more persuasive or, to borrow Alonso’s words from “The Tempest”, that those who put it “cram these words into my ear against the stomach of my sense”.
- Parris argues that Cameron should not resign, but instead call a snap election. However, this is impossible under the terms of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act – a creation of the Coalition to which he signed up. It is most unlikely that Clegg and his party would consent to its abolition. And if they didn’t consent to this, there probably wouldn’t be a Commons majority for it.
- The core of the case for Cameron quitting is that someone has to carry the can for the end of the Union. Rationally, it is questionable. Emotionally, it is powerful.
- A Cameron resignation would be problematic for the Conservatives beyond almost description. On the reasonable presumption that he could not stay on as Party leader having departed as Prime Minister, there would, under the rules, have to be a full leadership election, little more than six months out from the general election. Go figure.
- My own answer is to the question is: I don’t know, but I have started asking round some “experts”. The tally so far: three Yeses, two Nos, and a Don’t Know.
- I don’t want to treat a serious matter with levity, but the would-he-resign-should-he-resign question may boil down to the point made to Perkins in Beyond the Fringe: “We need a futile gesture at this stage” (see above). Cameron’s resignation might be futile, but it may become inevitable.
- And finally… Since not a single poll has yet shown Yes in the lead, the question may be academic. Or not. Every “expert” I speak to says that Scotland will vote No. Each then adds that the movement of the polls has recently been towards Yes, that we are still six months or so out, and that he cannot be sure.