Andrew Lilico is Executive Director and Principal of Europe Economics.
In 1922, Andrew Bonar Law took over as British Prime Minister (the only Canadian ever to have done so), when David Lloyd George’s coalition collapsed after only New Zealand sided with Lloyd George’s planned military action against Turkey in the Chanak Crisis. Only four Cabinet ministers in the previous government were willing to continue to serve. Abandoned by the party’s leading lights, Bonar Law’s administration was referred to mockingly by Churchill as “a government of the Second Eleven”.
Unless there is either a win for Leave in the 2016 EU referendum or Remain wins by 20 per cent plus, it is increasingly difficult to see how most of the current Cabinet who have backed Remain could continue. The party faces a very real danger of a 1922-style event, forced into our own government of the Second Eleven.
Why? Suppose Remain secures a modest victory in 2016 – let us say 54 per cent to 46 per cent. What will happen next? Some 70 per cent or more of Conservative members will have voted to leave the EU. David Cameron has committed to standing down before the end of this Parliament, and once the referendum is passed the pressure for him to get a move on will be considerable. But even if he holds on for a year or two, when the Conservative leadership election comes, there will be only one important outcome: the person who wins will be in favour of leaving the EU ,and will be expected to find some excuse to hold another referendum in the 2020-2025 Parliament. Indeed, it is likely that there would even be a commitment to hold a referendum in the 2020 manifesto.
Some commentators fondly imagine that a small victory for Remain would resolve the question, and the Party would then draw together to face off Corbyn. There is no chance of that. We know from the 2001 Leadership election how committed Conservative members are to choosing a leader that is sound on Europe: even Ken Clarke could not win, and he could not win even against the then-unknown-for-anything-but-disloyalty Iain Duncan Smith. And Clarke was crushed: Duncan Smith won by more than 20 per cent. And we also know that parties do not consider these matters resolved post-referendum. Following the 1975 EU referendum, even when the margin for staying in was more than 30 per cent, the Labour Party did not let it go and by 1983 was standing on a manifesto commitment to leave.
If there is a small victory for Remain, Conservative members will choose a pro-Leave Prime Minister who will hold a second referendum. Until that second referendum resolves the issue, leaving the EU will remain live. What will that mean for pro-Remain colleagues? Could they serve in the Cabinet? I think the great likelihood is that, after the bitterness of internecine strife during the 2016 Referendum campaign – which will only intensify over the next three months – there will be little to no appetite for repeating that on a drawn-out basis from 2018 to 2023. Pro-Remain MPs will have to either accept a pro-Leave line or stay out of the Cabinet.
The does not mean that none of the current pro-Remain Cabinet ministers could serve later. It would be quite straightforward for Sajid Javid, for example, who has said he favours leaving, just not in 2016-2018, to say that 2023 would be a splendid moment to depart. Others may press that they favoured Remain only out of loyalty to the Prime Minister of the day, and if the Prime Minister of tomorrow favours Leaving, they will be equally loyal to him or her.
The greater problem will be for those current Cabinet Ministers – or senior ministers just below Cabinet level – who have an earnest conviction that the UK should Remain and who are not persuaded to change their minds by subsequent developments in the EU. It is very difficult to see how such ministers – including many of the brightest and the best of the Party – could serve successfully without destabilising a pro-Leave administration. Perhaps that could, just about, work if the vast majority (say 80 per cent or more) of Conservative MPs supported leaving, so Remain could be tolerated as an amusing-but-irrelevant conscience position.
More probably, however, these talented individuals would have to be sidelined until the result of the second referendum, leaving us with the “Second Eleven” in charge. By the time those five years have passed, today’s talented Remain-ers will be yesterday’s men and women.
The great irony of all this is that many commentators had assumed that it would be pro-Leave MPs and ministers that would damage their careers. Actually, it is the Remain-ers that have done so. Unless they think Remain can win by more than 20 per cent, their personal ambition now depends upon a vote to Leave.