David Cameron had hoped that an EU referendum would result in a thumping win for Remain, close the Europe question down for a generation and thus bring unity to his party. All three of those goals now look out of reach. The polls are staying doggedly close into the final stretch, already Brexiteers are setting up for a second referendum (it is now hard to see how it won’t appear on the agenda of the next Tory leadership contest), and the Blue on Blue attacks have gone way beyond what anyone would have predicted before this all got started.
This has me scared about what happens from June 24th onwards – regardless of the result. If we vote to Leave, the possibilities are nightmarish, particularly in the short term. Cameron could quit right away, leaving everything in chaos. No prime minister at a time when huge portions of the British economy will want very quick answers on what happens next, with threats of massive job losses being bandied about, is not a pleasant thought.
Boris almost certainly becomes prime minister in short order, and then Mr Details will be in charge of negotiating a new path for the UK. At the same time, Labour will be in meltdown (I mean even more than it already is), with the right of the party blaming Corbyn for the Leavers winning. The House of Commons would be facing its largest ever challenge at a time when it would be least able to handle it.
However, even if we vote to stay in, I’m still worried about the near future. After the poll bounce for Leave over the bank holiday weekend, we’ve heard people like Jon Gaunt announce to his listeners that the referendum is now “in the bag” for Leave. Some tabloids have repeated the same message. Given the audience in question is bound to take this as gospel, what happens when Remain wins? Particularly if it is close (and that looks increasingly likely), the cries of “establishment stitch up” are bound to be deafening. If you think people are cynical now about politics in the country, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
We’re still a lot better off Remaining In, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that it is not going make all of the problems go away. What happens with Cameron and his party is particularly interesting. I’m sure the prime minister will push ahead with his attempt to heal rifts via offering top cabinet jobs to Leavers. I don’t see how this gets him out of the hole he’s created – he has always appeased the right of the Tories whenever he’s in a bind and the appeasement always just makes everything worse. After what’s gone on the past few weeks, this seems more relevant than ever.
So the relief that many of us were looking for post-June 23rd may not come. Everything might be about to get more mental than ever – whatever the result of the referendum. But at least if we vote to Remain, it won’t matter nearly as much to the future of Britain. In other words, we can’t afford the meltdown that is inevitable if we vote to Leave.