This post is a fiction, a fantasy.
The subject of this post was chosen by the winner of my pre-election sweepstake. It is intended to be plausible (though see the afterword), rather than probable, and a light-hearted exploration of how history could, in a very different world, have turned out differently. In particular, none of the positions, statements or actions taken by real-life politicians referred to in this piece should be taken as the actual positions, statements or actions they hold, or would hold, in real life.
David Cameron gives his long-awaited ‘definitive speech’ on the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU, pledging to fundamentally renegotiate our partnership should he win a majority in 2013. Despite much anticipation, the speech was silent as to whether or not he would offer an in-out referendum, or what would happen if the EU didn’t offer the concessions he sought.
Numerous EU leaders stated that the UK could not ‘cherry-pick’ its relationship with the EU and that the four freedoms were indivisible. Meanwhile, prominent Eurosceptic Conservatives, including David Davis, John Redwood and Bill Cash condemned Cameron for failing to offer an in-out referendom. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, said it was ‘high time’ the British people were consulted on whether or not they wished to remain in the EU.
Speaker John Bercow controversially allows a cross-party amendment to the Queen’s Speech, regretting the fact that it did not contain an in-out referendum. The amendment is signed by over 45 members, including Conservative MP David Davis and Labour MPs Kelvin Hopkins and John Cryer. The amendment is defeated when both the Conservative and Labour parties whip against it.
Later that month, UKIP comes first in the European Parliamentary Elections with a vote share of 27%, the first time since the Second World War that a party other than the Conservatives or Labour have won a UK election. The result confirms Europe as one of the dominant issues in UK politics.
Labour leader Ed Miliband gives a keynote speech on Europe at the Fabian Society. Concerned by the growing strength of UKIP’s vote in Labour’s midland and northern heartlands, he echoes Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with Europe and goes one further – promising an in-out referendum on the resulting deal. Miliband makes clear that he sees the UK’s future as being served better in all circumstances by remaining in the EU, but says ‘it is only right’ that people should have their say, and that the ‘legitimate concerns of left-behind communities’ must be heard.
Prime Minister Cameron immediately condemns Miliband’s announcement as ‘reckless and irresponsible’, a clear sign that Labour cannot be trusted with the economy. However, some Conservative back-benchers express support for the idea in press interviews.
At George Osborne’s direction, the Treasury publishes a lengthy document forecasting the UK would be worse off under any Brexit scenario. In a speech to the CBI, he argues that a Labour government would be playing Russian roulette with the economy, with Brexit being ‘an even graver threat than a return to Gordon Brown’s borrowing’.
Jeremy Corbyn establishes the European Research Group of Labour MPs in favour of ‘Lexit’. Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins and John Cryer are amongst the first 14 members. Their first publication condemns the EU as a neoliberal capitalist enterprise and argues that a ‘clear separation’ is needed to allow the wholesale nationalisation of the means of production and the introduction of a socialist economy in the service of the people.
Kate Hoey and Douglas Carswell stun the political establishment with a joint announcement that they are defecting to UKIP. Both resign to fight – and win – by-elections. Though Hoey cites a number of ‘profound disagreements’ with the current leadership of UKIP, she says she cannot reconcile her own views with Miliband’s unwavering commitment to campaign to remain in the EU in the forthcoming election – and says ‘it is crucial the voice of the left is reflected at the highest levels within the UK’s principle pro-Brexit party’.
April – May 2015
The General Election campaign is fought on two main issues: managing the deficit and Brexit – though public services, including the NHS and schools continue to be highly important. Cameron and Osborne’s core theme – that Labour cannot be trusted to restore public finances – becomes muddled with attacks on Labour for risking an economically damaging exit from the EU, an approach that alienates a number of their supporters; together, the two messages weaken each other, rather than reinforcing as the Conservatives had hoped.
Meanwhile, Labour makes Cameron’s prior reference to UKIP supporters as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” a core secondary message of their campaign, using new (albeit not all that sophisticated) digital targeting techniques to display adverts showing these words to the quarter of the electorate who had voted for UKIP last year. An acrimonious spat between Miliband and Salmond over the impact of Brexit on Scottish independence in a live television debate weakens the effect of the Tories’ iconic ‘Miliband in Salmond’s pocket’ image while the Lib Dems fail to duplicate the ‘Cleggmania’ of 2010 or to carve out a distinctive message that distances themselves from the Conservatives.
When the final results are in, Labour is found to have won a majority of just four. Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister; David Cameron resigns that morning. So does Nick Clegg, as the Liberal Democrats lose over 30 seats, being reduced to 21. Carswell and Hoey secure reelection, with UKIP making no other gains. Meanwhile, north of the border, Alex Salmond says the election results vindicates the need to hold the second Scottish referendum.
Steve Baker becomes chair of Conservatives for Britain, which now claims more than thirty members. Six new MPs join Jeremy Corbyn’s European Research Group. George Osborne resigns as an MP to take up the editorship of the Evening Standard.
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat leadership contests conclude, producing two surprising results.
For the Tories, underdog Dominic Grieve defeats Theresa May to become Leader of the Opposition, running on a platform of opposing Labour’s ‘reckless’ referendum plans and the need to continue Cameron’s legacy of public service reform and fiscal responsibility. Boris Johnson, newly elected to Parliament was narrowly defeated in the final round of MPs voting.
Meanwhile, newly elected MP Richard Borroughs shocks the pundits by winning the Liberal Democrat leadership by a huge margin. Seizing on grassroots opposition to the Coalition years, his campaign unhesitatingly repudiated the decisions of Clegg, Cable and others and challenges the party to ‘return to its roots’ by championing radical liberalism and combating global injustice. Cancelling developing country debt, abolishing Trident and reparations for slavery become part of the Lib Dem policy platform alongside equalities and climate change, communicated through fiery speeches which regularly condemn big pharma, big oil and the military-industrial complex.
Prime Minister Ed Miliband introduces the European Union (Referendum) Bill into Parliament.
October – December 2015
Working in close collaboration, the ERG and Conservatives for Britain – together now more than 50 MPs – tightly scrutinise the passage of the Referendum Bill, forcing the government to back down on its proposals to water down purdah and amend the franchise, as well as to accept the Electoral Commission’s recommendation for the wording of the question. Baker is widely acknowledged as the principal Parliamentary strategist, working closely with Gisela Stuart for the ERG. Labour’s hair-thin parliamentary majority foreshadows worse battles to come.
Boris Johnson announces his resignation as MP to focus full-time on contesting the 2016 London Mayoral elections.
European Union (Referendum) Act receives Royal Assent.
Rivalry between two pro-Brexit campaign groups: Leave.EU, associated with Nigel Farage, and Vote Leave, associated with Field, Hoey, Baker and Carswell, for which Dominic Cummings in the campaign director. Jeremy Corbyn refuses to say which group he hopes will receive the official campaign designation.
Ed Miliband returns triumphantly from Brussels brandishing the results of his renegotiation, which includes a new ‘red card’ mechanism, an ’emergency brake’ for immigration and a formal opt-out from ever closer union, as well as some minor amendments to the state aid rules.
Jeremy Corbyn immediately condemns the renegotiation has ‘wholly inadequate’ and ‘incompatible with the imperative to create a truly socialist state’; Steve Baker says accepting it ‘would mean endorsing 50 specific examples of centralised powers enacted by the Lisbon Treaty’; Nigel Farage says he has ‘betrayed Britain’ while Lib Dem leader Richard Borroughs criticises him for ‘doing nothing to address the gross inequities created by the Common Agricultural Policy’. Dominic Grieve initially appears to provide some comfort for the PM by praising it as ‘an act of great statesmanship’, but immediately goes on to call for Miliband to abandon his plans for a referendum, arguing that the ‘substantive renegotiation obviates the perceived need for a referendum’.
Approximately forty Conservative MPs, including Steve Baker, Michael Gove and Priti Patel declare for Leave, with Gove writing an impassioned article in the Times about the fundamental importance of sovereignty. Grieve expels Gove from the shadow cabinet.
Corbyn hosts a launch event with the ERG setting out a ten point plan for how a Labour government would transform Britain after Brexit.
Borroughs stuns the nation by announcing that the Liberal Democrats will campaign for Leave in the referendum, condemning the the EU has a ‘fundamentally neoliberal and undemocratic superstate’ that has ‘brutalised Greece’ and ’caused untold harm to developing countries through its rapacious pursuit of profit in pharmaceuticals, agriculture and fossil fuels’. Six Lib Dem MPs immediately resign to sit as independents while thousands of members tear up their membership cards.
Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe formally designated as the official campaigns. Arron Banks declares that the decision “smells of political corruption from our high-minded establishment and cannot be allowed to pass without challenge.”
The Treasury publishes a major report that claims the UK will be significantly worse off in all circumstances in the event of Brexit. Ed Miliband and Dominic Grieve hold a joint press conference endorsing its findings and tell the public that, “This is a time to put country before party. Whatever your politics, we urge you to put our country’s future first and Remain in the EU.”
Formal campaigning for the referendum begins.
Leave appears to be running three campaigns at once. Vote Leave delivers the core message of Take Back Control, with Gove, Patel, Field and Stuart leading their media appearances – they make steady progress, but initially lack a charismatic leader to match the unofficial groups to left and right.
Corbyn brushes off all efforts to coordinate his actions and instead delivers a gruelling series of rallies and speeches across the country, increasingly attended by chanting crouds of fans. Borroughs attempts to do similarly, touring campuses and liberal towns with a message of global justice and poverty reduction. He initially faces regular heckling, but his clear conviction and powerful message soon begins to cut through with an increasing minority of young progressives. Meanwhile, Farage uses UKIP’s £4m spending limit to campaign on his core themes of immigration and an independent Britain.
Britain Stronger in Europe runs a far more consistent campaign focusing on the economy and marked by regular joint appearances by senior Conservative and Labour front-benchers advocating Remain. Foreign leaders, academics, the IMF and big business line up to tell the British people they should vote Remain. Leave campaigners attack it from both left and right as the out-of-touch voice of the establishment and the rich – though the visions they portray are wildly different.
On 7 May, Boris Johnson wins a historic third term as Mayor of London, defeating Sadiq Khan by just 87 votes on the third recount. In his victory speech he declares his support for Leaving the EU, proclaiming that ‘London has always been a global, not just a European city.’ In the Evening Standard on 8 May, George Osborne condemns Boris as ‘Worse than Judas’.
The campaigns build to a conclusion. Most polls show Remain has a slight lead, but some are too close to call. Over seven million people tune in for the final TV debate in which Johnson, Stuart and Corbyn take on Grieve, Miliband and Lucas (Farage, Borroughs and Clegg all angrily protest their exclusion).
As the day closes on 23rd June, commentators are stunned when Sunderland declares for Leave by far more than the polls had suggested. The night wears on and Leave continues to outperform expectations; by 4am, when Birmingham declared for Leave, the result becomes conclusive. The end result will find that the UK has voted, by a margin of 52:48, to leave the EU.
At 11am on 24th June, Ed Miliband announces his resignation as Labour leader and Prime Minister – he will stay on only as long as it takes to appoint a successor. Grieve condemns the decision as irresponsible. Meanwhile, Farage and Borroughs call for Article 50 to be triggered immediately while over two and a half million people sign a petition calling for a second referendum to be held.
Nigel Farage resigns as UKIP leader saying ‘he had done his bit.’
Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn, Andy Burnham and Caroline Flint declare themselves as candidates for Labour leader. It is initially rumoured that Gisela Stuart will back Corbyn, but she instead releases a statement condemning the left-winger’s ‘antisemitism and consistent support for terrorists, meaning that he cannot be trusted with maintaining the security of our nation.’
Corbyn’s campaign rapidly implodes under the pressure of media scrutiny and he fails to secure the requisite number of MPs to enter the contest, with many concerned about his far-left economic policies.
Flint, who voted Remain but represents a heavily Leave-voting constituency, is elected Labour leader by a significant majority, declaring that ‘we must honour the democratic mandate of our fellow citizens and constituents who voted to Leave the EU.’ She pledges to deliver a moderate, pragmatic Brexit that maintains close economic cooperation with the European Union and suggests that remaining in the Single Market or Customs Union may be appropriate.
Jeremy Corbyn issues a statement that only proper economic and regulatory separation will allow the construction of a true socialist economy and that Flint’s proposals will see Britain continue to be subjected to ‘the market tyranny of state aid rules and untrammelled corporate tax evasion that place the interests of multinational corporations above the rights of ordinary citizens.’ He pledges that he and ERG will hold the Government to account from the back-benches. Meanwhile, Dominic Grieve condemns Flint’s ‘reckless’ plans saying ‘any Brexit will do untold economic damage.’
The EU refuses to begin negotiations until we trigger Article 50.
Flint delivers a landmark speech to the TUC at which she sets out a ten point plan for a successful Brexit negotiation. Laura Kuennsberg warns that with a majority of only 4, gaining Parliamentary support for any deal will be exceptionally difficult.
The Government triggers Article 50.
The Liberal Democrats stage a controversial ‘Justice for Africa’ protest during a European Parliament debate on the Common Agricultural Policy. Borroughs uses the ensuring media attention to roundly criticise Flint’s ‘Blairite’ approach to the negotiations and says that ‘only full, unilateral withdrawal from the Common Agricultural Policy, the end to investor-state dispute settlement and the immediate cancellation of all developing country debt will command the support of the Liberal Democrats in these negotiations.”
UKIP’s second leader since Nigel Farage resigns after sexist tweets are exposed.
Flint lays a motion for a negotiation mandate before the Labour Party Conference. It passes with 72% of the vote, with Corbyn, Stuart, Field and Remain supporters Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn notable speakers against.
A Brexit rally at the Conservative Party Conference featuring Steve Baker, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg makes headline for attracting more delegates than Dominic Grieve’s speech as leader.
Flint seeks Parliamentary approval for her negotiation mandate; it is defeated by 92 votes. She determines to continue, and to update Parliament when further information about the EU’s position becomes clear.
People’s Vote, a group calling for a second referendum, is established.
Conservatives achieve historically poor results in the local elections, with many grass roots members alienated by their staunch opposition to Brexit. Grieve announces that we must listen to the people, and declares the best way to do so would be to hold a second referendum, or People’s Vote, to settle the question once and for all.
Greens achieve a record number of councillors, taking control of three councils, mainly at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems. Caroline Lucas declares that the Greens now represent ‘the only progressive party committed to remaining in the EU.’
UKIP’s 7th leader since Nigel Farage resigns after losing all but two of the councillors standing.
Dominic Grieve announces at Party Conference that the Conservative Party will vote against any Brexit deal that does not include a second referendum. In a letter to The Times signed by 47 MPs, Conservatives for Britain declare that they will never support a second referendum and will not vote for any deal that maintains Freedom of Movement. The Telegraph pronounces the Conservative Party to be ‘hopelessly divided over Brexit.
Flint returns from Brussels with a final proposed agreement that she presents to her Cabinet at Chequers. Two of her Cabinet immediately resign and, in a letter to the Guardian signed by 32 MPs, the ERG declare that they can never support the so-called Withdrawal Agreement. The Guardian pronounces the Labour Party to be ‘hopelessly divided over Brexit’.
UKIP’s 23rd leader since Nigel Farage resigns following a racist incident involving a rice pudding and a hippopotamus.
Flint proposes a meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. It is defeated by 98 votes. Almost all Conservatives, the SNP, the DUP, over fifty Labour party members and approximately three quarters of the Lib Dems vote against.
Seven MPs, including Chukka Umunna, Angela Smith and Jo Swinson defect from Labour and the Lib Dems, declaring they can no longer be part of facilitating Brexit. This means that Flint officially loses her majority.
The Withdrawal Agreement is again defeated by Parliament, this time by 62 votes.
Five more MPs defect from Labour and the Lib Dems to the Independent Group for Change.
With the support of Speaker John Bercow, Dominic Grieve, supported by Caroline Lucas and the new Independent Group for Change uses an Opposition Day debate to schedule a series of ‘meaningful votes’ on different Brexit options, including revoking Article 50 and a Second Referendum. All options are rejected.
A second day of ‘meaningful votes’ is held the following week. Again, all options are rejected.
Caroline Flint requests, and receives, an extension to Article 50 until 31 October 2019.
Nigel Farage officially launches the Brexit Party, stating his intention to contest the upcoming European elections and any future general election to ensure Brexit is delivered.
In a shocking result, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives all achieve record low results in the European Elections – with Labour and the Conservatives together polling under 30% combined.
The Brexit Party came first with 32%, followed by the Greens with their highest ever result in a national poll with a vote share of 21%.
Caroline Flint announces her resignation as leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister.
Spain sentences Catalan leaders to imprisonment. Lib Dem leader Borroughs condemns the EU’s acceptance of this as demonstrating that ‘it stands against all the principles of liberal democracy.’
After a swift leadership contest, at long last, serial-rebel and Brexiteer Jeremy Corbyn is elected leader of the Labour Party on the back of the votes of the membership and becomes Prime Minister. The results show the majority of the Parliamentary Party voted against him.
Dominic Grieve condemns the result, saying that neither the country nor the economy will be safe in his hands. With no majority in Parliament, outright opposition on his own benches and just three months to go before the UK is due to leave the EU, how long Corbyn will remain Prime Minister is an open question…
Some elements of this fantasy are plausible than others. In particular, the role of the Lib Dems is a part I find least plausible, which is why I invented a fictitious leader for them; however, this was an explicit part of the request. It is not that there is not a credible reason to oppose EU membership that fits within the ‘liberal’ broad tent – there manifestly is – it is that I cannot see the UK Liberal Democrats reaching that space from where they were in 2015.
I would like to emphasise once again that these events are fictitious and that none of the statements attributed to any of the politicians mentioned should be considered factual or historical (though I hope they come across as things they might have said). In particular, I should say a word about Caroline Flint: my choice of her as Labour leader was clearly driven in part by the similarities to May, in that she originally voted Remain but saw a duty to honour the result of the referendum; however, her lack of success in this narrative should be taken as a narrative parallel reflecting exceptionally challenges facing any leader with a small (or no) majority in such a situation, rather than any comment on her leadership.
It is of course unlikely that, in a parallel universe, events would follow those of real life so closely. The fact that they do here is simply poetic license. Nevertheless, I have chosen to strip away the 2017 election as an unnecessary narrative complication (instead giving Labour a smaller majority in 2015), the multiple Article 50 extensions and to simplify much of the detail that marked the real Parliamentary process. The references to UKIP’s multiple leaders are of course entirely comic.
It is, of course, notable, that the situation is not entirely symmetrical with real life. Even leaving aside the anomalous position of the Lib Dems, in this scenario, the governing party, Labour, would have a membership and MP base more pro-Remain than the real Conservatives, while I present the Conservatives under Grieve as being a party which is officially unhesitatingly for Remain (via a second referendum) but with more MPs and supporters who wished to Leave than Labour had in real life. It is this distinction which I believe makes it plausible that the deadlock could have been similarly maintained, with a higher number of Tory rebels under Steve Baker opposing a second referendum (and sometimes backing Labour) balanced by a more fractious Labour Parliamentary party.
Finally, I ended the narrative in July 2019 for a reason. The election of Boris Johnson as Conservative leader marked the beginning of the end to the Parliamentary deadlock and the beginning of the genuine delivery of Brexit. His path from assuming the leadership to success on December 12th is one of the extraordinary political triumphs of our time and I do not consider it likely, sensible or plausible to portray another Prime Minister, let alone Jeremy Corbyn, following the same path to the same outcome. What the end result would have been in such a situation, and whether it would have been in any way desirable, I leave as an exercise for the reader’s imagination.