This article originally appeared in Total Politics on 3 June 2016.
The Prime Minister describes the EU referendum as one of the biggest decisions of our lifetimes. It is also the biggest test of his political authority in years. June 23rd is a huge moment for No10: a clear Remain win sees them taking back command of a political agenda that has lately slipped away, while a result for Leave could mean utter chaos. So what exactly will Downing Street be planning to manage the result?
The first key point to understand is the difference between the Prime Minister’s roles as head of the Cabinet, who wields executive power via the confidence of the House of Commons, and as Tory leader, whose authority rests on the faith colleagues have in you as a general election winner. Lose that and a Conservative leader can be removed by their own MPs more easily than in any other party.
The Prime Minister won the last election, but the fact he has said he will not fight the next has led some to question his future authority, with malcontents in the Tory ranks already calling for his head. He needs now to be seen by colleagues to be selflessly laying the ground for the next leader’s success, whoever takes this mantle. Understanding this dynamic is key to understanding how No10 will manage the referendum result.
There are, broadly speaking, three scenarios.
First, and most desirable for No10, obviously, is a clear Remain win: 55% to 45%, or better. Downing Street then wins a mandate to take immediate steps to mobilise the party behind a clear domestic unity agenda.
A tight Remain win, however, means a much tougher job. A win is a win, but unifying the party is tougher and there will be more debate over its strategic direction towards the 2020 election.
The worst possible scenario for No10 is a Leave win, which could herald chaos, politically. Calls for the Tory leader’s resignation would escalate, fought by more sensible Tories, who know that that the eviction of their two-time Prime Minister and only election winner in a quarter of a century would be pure electoral self-harm. Talk in the press of a leadership challenge even in the event of a Remain win, incidentally, is very far-fetched in my view and would be crushed easily.
Which brings us to referendum management. The very first step will be a swift move to regain political authority and there will be two important parts to this.
First, following a referendum campaign that will have tested party unity to its limits, the Prime Minister will set out a clear (and nakedly party political) agenda and a call for all Conservatives to rally behind it. More on that agenda later.
In doing this, it is essential simultaneously to get off No10’s plate any lingering decisions which are crucial but distract from core political strategy. The glaring issue is airport expansion and Heathrow must simply be given the green light and got out the way, now the airport has taken steps to deal with environmental and noise issues. This is a personal view I declare an interest in, having worked for the airport on infrastructure planning, but such critical decisions must be expedited, with implementation then outsourced to the National Infrastructure Commission and its uber-smart head, Lord Adonis.
The second step is a reshuffle. The idea, carried in some reports, of a ‘revenge’ act where all the Brexiteers are purged is madness. The Tory party is ever a broad church and the cabinet must always reflect that, or its legitimacy is compromised.
The way is then open to progress a clear unity agenda, which the Prime Minister will focus around the urgent task of broadening Tory appeal for a decisive majority at the 2020 election. The reality some Tories still fail to grasp, despite all the evidence available, is their fatal lack of appeal with swathes of the electorate in must-win areas of city regions and across the north of England. Tackling this is the real priority of the party, whether in or out of the EU and even if still facing Jeremy Corbyn and his calamitously inexperienced inner team.
The so-called ‘life chances agenda’ floated at the Queen’s speech, with reference to prison rehabilitation, will be extended to a broad, progressive programme for extending opportunity much more widely. To succeed politically, it will require some of the radicalism the Government has hitherto shied from: promoting home ownership and education reform more aggressively, for example, and later a bolder tax-cutting move. All to demonstrate the Party’s commitment to helping regular people get on – the only agenda on which Conservatives gain any true popularity.
This is all much easier after a Remain win, of course. A Brexit vote and the fear of even a short-term economic hit could see a punishing electorate banish the Tories back to the wilderness they inhabited for the decade after 1997. But the essential strategy Number 10 must adopt in any case is the same: a swift political reset to a domestic agenda a broad-church party can unite behind. The path to 2020, for whoever takes the leadership after Cameron, is then clear.