I'm not very sure about the wisdom of opening this particular Pandora's box before we actually see the result on May 5th, but if we must, we must. It is rare that I find myself disagreeing with the Editor of this site, but this ToryDiary is one of those few occasions.
The Editor makes two key claims, both of which I am inclined to question:
- "The Coalition will endure", whatever the referendum result, and however it comes about.
- "What we cannot have is any attempt to overturn the result", whatever the referendum result, and however it comes about, because "I can't think of anything more likely to increase disdain for MPs than if they vote to reject the people's decision".
I think he's probably wrong on both counts.
If the referendum result were a Yes under circumstances that did not appear to reflect a decisive national will – e.g. if the turnout in England were below 20%, England voted No, but the overall vote were a narrow Yes carried by Scottish and Welsh Yes votes – then I believe a significant group of Conservative MPs would believe there was a case for reconsidering. The only practical way for that to be achieved would be for Mr Cameron to be replaced as Party leader, and another General Election to be held before the AV rules came in in 2013. In the event of an anti-AV party winning that Election, there would then be until 2018 to either hold another referendum on the same question or to work out some other way through.
There is a very good chance that an attempt upon Mr Cameron's leadership would be defeated – after all, victory in a subsequent General Election would be far from guaranteed, and there is still the small matter of a deficit reduction plan to complete. Defeat for the challengers would entrench AV. At that point, I expect that a significant group of these challengers would leave the Conservative Party and form their own new party to the Right of the Conservative Party, hoping to persuade UKIP to join with them. (Under this scenario, involving the largest number of departures, the rebels wouldn't join UKIP - UKIP would need to join them. I anticipate between 30 and 40 MPs and Lords in this.) If that didn't happen, then there would be a highly non-trivial number of defectors to UKIP (though not as many as the new party scenario – probably 20+).
Either way, the aim would be that, under AV, it would not always be a matter of the Conservative Party compromising to the Left in forming coalitions (with some "New Liberal Party" or whatever emerges from political realignment in the Centre). Sometimes it could compromise to the Right. Indeed, the possibility of this happening would probably strengthen the Conservative vote (fewer voters would abandon the party under AV if it seemed like a party that might be in Right wing, as opposed to always Centrist, governments).
Furthermore, I suspect that a Yes vote for AV would make it more likely that the Lib Dems would split, since a new "Social Democrat" wing of the Lib Dems would make a plausible AV coalition partner for Labour, and be less likely to be annihilated in an early General Election than would a Lib Dem splitters faction under FPTP.
(Some readers might wonder whether so many new parties would really be the consequence of AV. Changes to electoral systems tend to lead to large political re-alignments, and a plethora of new parties arising to probe what new political fault-lines emerge. In New Zealand, for example, following the 1992 referendum on abandoning First Past the Post, the new parties to emerge included: New Zealand First, Act New Zealand, Future New Zealand, the Progressive Party, United, the Christian Democrat party, Christian Heritage - all of which have held seats in Parliament (and I have not listed all the new parties to hold seats even here).)
With splinters to the Left and to the Right as a consequence of AV, even if Cameron were not replaced the Coalition would probably no longer command a majority. The Right wing schismatics would probably be less inclined to an early General Election than the Left (since absent replacing Cameron their hope of governing alone would be lost – they would exist only as a party-under-AV), and so would probably naturally tend to grant the government confidence-and-supply on the condition that the deficit reduction programme continued.
Returning to the oughts here, the Editor suggests that it would be wrong to try to prevent AV. Why? What can be changed can be changed again! If an anti-AV party won a General Election, why shouldn't it pursue the policies on which it was elected? I don't see why such a party winning a General Election would even need to hold another referendum if the result of the first were as weak as in the scenario I sketched. But suppose that it did hold another referendum (presumably before 2018, by when the first AV election would be required) and this time the vote were to return to first past the post. What would be wrong with that?
The Editor suggests that what would be wrong would be that voters would become even more disenchanted with MPs. Well, tough! I want my MPs to do the right thing, not to spend their time on Conservative-Party-circa-2002-2006-style "does my bum look big in this" vanity obsession. The voters are going to hate MPs whatever they do. That boat has sailed. Do the right thing, chaps and chapesses!
As well as anticipating that this would probably happen, I point out that scenarios along these lines appear to be what Cameron's team fears would happen, which is presumably a key reason they dramatically changed gear on this issue a couple of months back and are now trying admirably hard to win the referendum. I hope we don't spend too much time dwelling on these sort of speculations – there remains every chance of our mobilising the No vote enough to take it, and of Mr Cameron coming out looking like the winner that his talents and true convictions surely imply he should be.