By Tim Montgomerie
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The date is May 2018…*
The exit polls were correct. Britain has voted to leave the European Union. The Electoral Commission has just confirmed that 53% of the British people have voted for withdrawal but only 47% voted to stay in. The Prime Minister, Edward Samuel Miliband, emerged looking shocked from Number 10 but said that his government would respect the people’s decision. He ordered his Foreign Secretary, Vincent Cable, to begin urgent negotiations on a new relationship with what, under the 2016 Treaty of Berlin, would soon be called the Union of Europe.
Five years ago when the former Tory leader and Prime Minister David Cameron had promised an In/Out referendum it seemed unlikely that Britain’s membership of the EU was in serious danger but a whole series of events gradually led to this enormous day in Britain’s history. First was the decision of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to match the Cameron pledge and agree to give the British people a say in the second half of this current parliament. Both parties resisted for a few months but repeated opinion polls showed that a substantial majority of voters wanted a referendum. Former Deputy PM Nick Clegg moved first in the autumn of 2013 (his penultimate party conference as leader) and the Labour leader felt compelled to follow.
The all-party consensus meant that Europe was not a big issue at the 2015 General Election. The election was fought on the central issue of the economy and a sluggish and patchy five year performance from the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition. Following the Barack Obama script, Labour fought a campaign promising to increase taxes on the rich and soften austerity. A difficult winter in Britain’s hospitals had raised the potency of Labour’s most potent issue and Andrew Lansley’s controversial NHS reforms reforms were blamed by a sophisticated social media blitz, orchestrated by the 38 Degrees online campaigning group. The Tories actually gained 1% in their share of the vote – compared with 2010 – after running a powerful tax bombshell campaign against Labour. They were undone, however, by a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote which meant the party lost more seats to Labour where Labour was the second-placed candidate than they gained directly from the Lib Dems where they were the challengers. Labour received 300,000 fewer votes than the Conservatives but because of Britain’s controversial electoral geography Labour became the largest party in the House of Commons. The Liberal Democrats, led by Tim Farron, agreed to put Mr Miliband into Downing Street in protest at a Tory election pledge to replace the Human Rights Act.
Labour soon became a very unpopular government. Like Francois Hollande in 2012, Ed Miliband had campaigned for office on an anti-austerity message but had had to U-turn once in office. The Tory/LibDem Coalition had eliminated half of the deficit it had inherited and international investors were demanding that there could be no deviation from the deficit reduction path. New taxes on richer Britons could not produce enough revenue to stabilise Britain’s public finances. New taxes were therefore introduced on National Insurance by the Chancellor, Ed Balls. He also enacted cuts in the aid, school building and pension budgets. The unions and green campaigners felt particularly betrayed. Throughout 2015 and 2016 there had been angry demonstrations throughout the country. The main beneficiary was the new Green and Justice Party, which under the leadership of Owen Jones, promised new taxes on land, property and an end to the European capitalist model. The GJP started to score 15% in some opinion polls. Four Labour MPs from the party’s Left joined with Caroline Lucas to ensure it had a significant voice in parliament.
Ed Miliband had considered dumping the EU referendum pledge when he won office but Tim Farron – remembering the consequences for Nick Clegg of the tuition fees U-turn – insisted that the promise be honoured. Mr Miliband’s heart was never in renegotiating a new deal for Britain, however. Moreover he was constantly preoccupied by his domestic economic and political difficulties. Europe simply wasn’t in the mood to even give modest concessions to Britain. Monsieur Hollande had been replaced by a new Gaullist president in Paris. Speaking in front of the Tricolore and the twelve golden stars of Europe the new French president said that Britain had to accept Europe as it was or leave.
Mr Miliband had to ask Britain to essentially endorse the existing UK-EU relationship. He had kept Britain out of the fiscal and banking union that had been agreed by EU leaders in 2016 at the summit hosted by Germany’s long-serving Chancellor, Angela Merkel, but had won no other major concessions. He was caught in a pincer movement between the new leader of the Tory Party, Boris Johnson, who had accused Ed Miliband of complete surrender to Brussels and the Green and Justice Party which said that Europe had become too enslaved to monetary orthodoxy and austerity to be supportable.
Most big businesses were supportive of Britain staying in the European Union but the case for leaving had been hugely helped by the five year No campaign run by the hugely respected Matthew Elliott. Elliott had run the cross-party No2AV campaign in 2011 and over five years had built a formidable alliance of smaller, hi-tech business groups who opposed the EU’s burdensome regulatory regime and unions who were opposed to the unemployment persisting across southern Europe because of the still dysfunctional Eurozone.
The unpopular Miliband was a disastrous front man for the No campaign and Lord Farage, Boris Johnson’s shadow defence secretary, had urged voters to use the referendum to send the PM a message about Labour’s record in office. At a joint press conference Lords Clarke, Heseltine, Mandelson and Patten complained that Britain’s place in Europe and not Labour’s record was the question on the referendum ballot paper. Voters heard their plea but voted against Mr Miliband anyway.
The pro-EU camp had looked to international investors to support their case and had enjoyed some success but their efforts were badly undermined by President Marco Rubio. Speaking from the White House lawn the 45th president of the United States said that he wouldn’t ever want America to be subservient to the United Nations and he couldn’t understand why Britain should be subservient to the European Union.
Wailing could be heard from within the office of Britain’s Commissioner to the European Union, Nick Clegg. Now to be known as the last Commissioner.
* This is a scenario, not a prediction.