Could David Cameron survive Brexit?

PM attends European Council

Oh dear, a clutch of slightly moth-eaten Tory grandees have laid into David Cameron, George Osborne, into the Treasury and Bank of England too, in terms that will make it even harder to bind up the country’s wounds when the referendum campaign ends.

I wish both sides would throttle back a bit.

Whatever the result at breakfast time on “Brexit Friday”, the outcome will be damaging and lasting. By putting party management over statesmanship in conceding a referendum at all – “a device for dictators and demagogues” as Margaret Thatcher once confirmed – this sorry mess is primarily Cameron’s fault. Since Osborne is his consigliere he shares the blame.

If they lose their complacent gamble – as polls suggest they may well on 23 June – posterity may come to regard Cameron with the same disdain that it does Lord North, the prime minister who “lost” the 13 American colonies in 1783. It’s a gamble, which is why gamblers are so keen on Brexit. But Scotland is a big chip on the table.

It’s become a cliche (none the worse for that) to say no one knows for sure what will happen after Brexit. That’s true, which is why Osborne’s “emergency budget” threat this week – a £30bn spending cut to offset a fast-deteriorating economic situation after Brexit – was a bit silly, a scary part of the degraded level of debate.

It’s what prompted ex-chancellors Norman Lamont and Nigel Lawson, plus interim ex-leaders Michael Howard and IDS, to write to Thursday’s Telegraph protesting about the “startling dishonesty” of the exercise, a “ludicrous” exercise in scaremongering.

All four have served in cabinet so they know how civil servants work and that Osborne will have picked a mid-range figure from the range of expert advice on offer. As Michael “Fishy” Gove – see Severin Carrell’s fascinating interview with his father here – has famously said, the British people are fed up with experts. As climate change sceptics, most of the Telegraph Four may be of the same populist mind.

“Prison works,” said home secretary Howard. Lord Lawson tried to shadow the German mark without telling his prime minister (M Thatcher) and presided over a failed boom. Lord Lamont was fired. IDS, the bedroom taxer? ‘Nuff said.

They really shouldn’t abuse the Bank of England whose Canadian head, Mark Carney, has sharply ticked off (“numerous and substantial” errors) the Brexit MP Bernard Jenkin for saying he had exceeded his brief. A nice guy, Jenkin (not as smart as his peer wife, Anne) – but not a heavyweight in these matters.

The same could be said of the six ex-cabinet ministers, still MPs, threatening to join 65 Tory rebels (plus Labour?) in blocking Osborne’s emergency budget if a win for Brexit plays badly in the immediate aftermath of the vote. It’s bluff really. As Larry Elliott explains patiently here, a cuts budget would guarantee the recession which is coming anyway. Better to wait and see.

But if we can agree that “no one knows what’s going to happen” if it turns out to be Brexit Friday, that applies to the politics as well as the economics. Neither side can sensibly pick and choose. Markets may well have already “priced in” – smug phrase, eh? – the risks of British departure. There again, they may panic in their usual herd ignorant way. Market sentiment usually overshoots in both directions.

If the market does panic and wreak havoc both with growth projections, tax revenues, borrowing costs and much else, neither the ex-cabinet six, Jenkin nor even Jeremy Corbyn will be in a position to resist some form of budgetary retrenchment to appease the country’s creditors. Ask that Greek waiter to explain before you pay the bill in cash.

There again, way outside their control too is the political reaction to Brexit across the Channel where an insular core of England football “supporters” are seeking their own version of Brexit for the national team from the European championship. This at a time of official state of emergency in the republic, when French police and security forces face a sustained terrorist threat. Shocking, isn’t it? Talk your way out of that, Fishy.

The French and Germans, who both have major elections next year (other people have domestic party management issues too, Dave), will want to be disobliging in order to discourage contagion in the wider populist fraternity of European nationalists. As the Sunday Times columnist AA Gill wittily reminded Pollyanna Brexiteers on Sunday, after a messy divorce you shouldn’t expect to get “sex with the ex”. Gill was once married to the energy secretary, Amber Rudd, by the way.

So don’t expect the EU ex-partners to make it easy. Life and human emotion are about more than exporting BMWs to Brexit elitists while Brexit footsoldiers wait for ever fewer buses. We don’t know, but it’s reasonable to assume it will be difficult and time-consuming. Expect a boom in civil service recruitment at the expensive end – we’ll need to divert some of our £8bn-a-year EU windfall from the NHS to retrain trade negotiators and draft “freedom” legislation.

What will Tory Brexit MPs do in their moment of triumph? Hardcore headbangers (sorry, but the phrase is inescapable) will start to detect fresh plots – their world is a state of mind not susceptible to remedy. Most will decide they had better come down to earth and help govern the country again after a spring sabbatical.

Does that mean that a defeated Cameron will be out of No 10 very quickly, if necessary by way of a backbench vote of no confidence? That would require the rebels to have a plausible candidate, preferably two, to offer. Fishy Gove? Read verdicts on his Question Time appearance here. Gove, who used to be a nice, middle-weight journalist, says he’s not PM material. I agree. Boris Trump? A Marmite politician and Nigel Farage likes him. Theresa May? She’s in no rush. John “Vulcan” Redwood? Well, he’s got experience challenging a Tory leader.

I may be wrong about this, that’s the whole point. But I just can’t see it happening like that when Cameron says he’s going anyway by 2020 (so he won’t be around to sign off on Brexit) and all hell is breaking loose around them. Better the devil you know, though leadership speculation is always more fun. Even Priti Patel is in the bookies’ sights for leader. You have my personal guarantee that my cat is better placed.

“Let Dave sort out Dave’s mess” is my hunch. After all, his old pal Steve “Big Society” Hilton disloyally says he’s a Eurosceptic really, merely constrained by the responsibility – important word – of office. So he’ll tackle the challenge with relish. Nicola Sturgeon is warning that Brexit will mean the “most rightwing Tory government ever” (isn’t that a bit Project Fear, Nic?), but less may change than we think. The record suggests Boris will still be pretty idle as Welsh secretary. He’s got a column to write every week!

Out there plenty of Labour supporters believe there will be a crisis of government which will give opportunities for Corbyn to seize the reins of government by way of an early general election – two-thirds of MPs would have to vote for Christmas under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – and usher in a new age of liberty and plenty.

I have a struggle seeing this happening and Jeremy gives no urgent impression of wanting to see it happen. He’s too busy capturing the less-than-commanding heights of the party machine. In any case Cameron has lined up a few distractions to carry MPs through the hot and irritable few weeks before parliament rises for the long summer recess.

A vote on Trident renewal? That will split Labour’s ranks and set the Corbynistas against their trade union uncles. The Chilcot report on Iraq? That will allow the Tories to back off their support for the war at the time and let Labour fight it out. Plenty more where that came from.

Win or lose on Thursday, Cameron isn’t finished and he still looks the classiest player on the field, albeit in a pretty low-grade match of the kind angry England football fans know only too well.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Thursday 16th June 2016 11.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010