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One risk Cameron doesn’t talk about: Boris as PM

by Hugo Dixon | 22.05.2016

David Cameron is happy to warn about falling house prices, recession and how we shouldn’t take peace for granted. But there’s one Brexit risk that he doesn’t mention: a new populist government headed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

The prime minister is committed to the fiction that he’ll still be in Downing Street if we vote to quit the EU. But this isn’t likely. And a populist government would make a tricky economic situation even more dangerous.

If the people voted to quit the EU on June 23, Cameron’s position would be untenable. He wouldn’t have the confidence of the electorate, his party or his MPs. He would lack the authority to conduct divorce negotiations with the EU.  At every twist and turn, his pro-Brexit colleagues would second guess him and accuse him of selling Britain’s interests short.

It is doubtful that the Conservative party would let Cameron stay as Prime Minister. But, even if it did, he would be barmy to accept the poisoned chalice – he would be then blamed for the ensuing chaos. It would be rational for him to tell Johnson and Gove they should take responsibility for implementing the policy they had advocated.

In a post-Brexit scenario, Johnson would be best placed to become Conservative leader and, hence, PM. Gove would be rewarded with a top job. The two men would probably play a decisive role in our exit negotiations. 

This a dangerous scenario because Johnson and Gove have pretended the Brexit process will be easy – claiming that Germany will be desperate to do a deal so it can sell us BMWs, and that the UK coffers will be full of the cash we no longer send to Brussels.

These claims are false. But having promised the voters an easy ride, Johnson and Gove would find it hard to admit they hadn’t been frank. The path of least resistance would probably be to get into a fight with the EU and try to blame it for our woes.

Gove has already said three things that amount to waving a red rag to the EU bull. He doesn’t just want to quit the bloc, he wants to break it up; he has threatened to veto the other members’ plans until they give us what we want; and he wants emergency legislation limiting the EU’s jurisdiction over the UK. 

Such a confrontational approach would virtually guarantee a bloody divorce. The other countries would dig their heels in. We would find it even harder to get good exit terms.

In the meantime, investors would run for the hills. That could make the short-term economic hit even worse than the government is likely to predict when it produces its dossier tomorrow.

Hugo Dixon is the author of The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better. Available here for £5 (paperback), £2.50 (e-book)

Edited by Jack Schickler