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As the moment of truth approaches, Whitehall, Westminster and the commentariat will be gaming both Leave and Remain. It is hardly surprising that speculation as to what exactly happens after the referendum has not yet hit the headlines. We have instead been concentrating on the 23rd itself. However, it might be helpful if, on Thursday evening, the government gave us all some indication of how it would react both to a Leave and to a Remain vote.
As a convinced Brexiteer, I hope that, if my side wins, Mr. Cameron will continue as Prime Minister at least for six to nine months and, depending on events, perhaps for even longer. A vote to leave will be a shock both to British politics and to the markets. Continuity in Downing St.would surely be a stabilising force in an uncertain situation and an immediate Tory leadership election would hardly add to our domestic political equilibrium.
I hope, too, that the Government has already sounded out our present European partners as to their real attitude should we vote to leave. Their public pronouncements have so far been understandably almost universally uncompromising and that may indeed be how they intend to react. In that case,there may be nothing for it but to invoke Article 50 in short order, appoint a negotiating team and reassert the supremacy of Parliament, if necessary before our two years are up.
If, on the other hand,our European partners can overcome their fear that Brexit will prove contagious, might it be that they could be attracted in the cold light of morning to a more constructive approach? Many on both sides of the Brexit argument are worried that the EU in its present form is dangerously unstable and that, if it is to survive, it must change. The multiple crises it faces make the need for it to change an urgent question and, setting aside the dilemma of whether it is capable of changing ,in a knock-down fight with a brexiting UK, I cannot help wondering which is most vulnerable, us or the EU. On those grounds alone our partners should be attracted to a less uncompromising reaction to Brexit.
Perhaps,after the polls close and Project Fear’s time is up,an eirenic announcement from the German Chancellor and the British Prime Minister might be too much to hope for, but it would certainly set a helpful tone.
And what if we vote to remain?
Our partners will mostly welcome our decision. What will be more interesting is what their next reaction is. Will they in effect say: “Right you Brits,congenital members of the awkward squad,you’ve made your decision. We want no more trouble from you. Fall into line and become good little “administres” as Napoleon would have wanted.”
That response would confirm that the EU is incapable of change. It would provoke a storm of morning after regret in the mind of the British electorate and confirm to us Brexiteers that the Remain campaign had been fibbing to us. After all, the Remainers have told us that they are in favour of staying in a reformed EU. In saying that, they are not only asserting that the EU is capable of reform, they are implying that they would not be prepared to stay in an unreformed Union.
So, it might be helpful, too, if in the same statement the German Chancellor were to propose that, in the event of a vote to remain, the nations of the EU should as soon as possible draw up a programme of reform for the Union. That programme should recognise the structural weaknesses of the present arrangements and the consequent poor political and economic performances of the Union and its constituent nations.
Such a statement would provide some modest reassurance to the British, but, equally important, it would begin to address some of the causes of growing extremism in European countries: something worth remembering as we await the decision as to whether there will be a recount in the Austrian presidential election.