Nobody doubts that a vote to leave the EU on June 23 could bring enormous change in Britain’s relationship with Europe and its domestic politics. But that doesn’t mean that a vote to remain would bring a return to business as usual. Far from it.
Even in the event of a strong remain vote, Prime Minister David Cameron would have new headaches: Over 40 percent of Conservative MPs who have declared a public position on the referendum are lining up to leave the EU, and this would make for a more unruly party, and even the possibility of further defections of MPs to UKIP post–the referendum. A modest vote to remain, however – let’s say somewhere between 50.1 percent and 53 percent –would mean even bigger problems.
Imagine a result in which England (London excepted) voted to leave, while electorates in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales helped carry the day for the remain camp. Such divisions within the U.K. could invigorate English nationalists, and fuel the success of UKIP, which won 13 percent of the popular vote in the 2015 U.K. general election (though secured only one parliamentary seat). A narrow win for “remain” could feel like a moral victory for “leave”; it would energize the disgruntled right of the largely euroskeptic Conservative Party. It would leave the European issue essentially unresolved, just as the September 2014 Scottish independence referendum gave supporters of the union a win, but didn’t quash the issue and even led to a resurgent Scottish Nationalist Party.
Some Conservative MPs have already indicated Cameron would “highly likely” face a vote of no confidence which would be triggered if 50 Conservative MPs write to the party’s 1922 Committee and demand one. Even if Cameron survives an immediate challenge from within, he may not recover, similar to when Margaret Thatcher was challenged by parliamentary backbencher Anthony Meyer in 1989. Although Thatcher won convincingly, she lost power the following year in another leadership challenge.
A close remain vote (the polls currently show the two sides about even) would also recast the terms of the debate over Cameron’s successor as prime minister. The chances for Chancellor George Osborne would recede rapidly, with stronger support for “leave” supporters including former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove. Johnson is currently the bookmaker’s favorite to be the next Conservative leader. Home Secretary Theresa May, who backs the “remain” camp but has largely stayed out of the referendum fray, has proved popular, but would lack the support for the euroskeptics in the party.
In fact, it’s hard to conceive a scenario where the Conservative’s small parliamentary majority wouldn’t be affected by the EU referendum. A victory may allow Cameron to push forward with his renegotiation package from February, but it would be hard for an embattled government to take a strong EU leadership role in coming years. Domestically, it will be even harder for a divided government to pursue key pillars of domestic policy, such as the public spending cuts of around £30 billion ($42.56 billion) that triggered the resignation of Ian Duncan Smith.
If the remain camp emerges with more votes on June 24, it may feel like no victory at all. Britain may emerge less governable, and less engaged in an EU it vowed to reform.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Grand Strategy at the London School of Economics. He was special adviser to the U.K. government when Britain last held the presidency of the European Union in 2005. © 2016, Bloomberg View