Barring a landslide, the implications of the EU referendum will still be unclear once the votes have been counted and announced. If there is a majority for Britain’s leaving the EU, there will remain years of negotiation about the terms of disentanglement. And who is to exclude a further referendum about these terms? The formality is that exit from the EU must be completed within two years from the date on which a member state gives notice of its intention to leave. However, in the event of a “Leave” vote on June 23, the UK government is likely to enter into prolonged talks, perhaps lasting for years, before it starts this two-year clock. This is clear from a briefing from within the “Leave” campaign.
(Illustration by Michael Daley)
If the “Remain” camp wins, the substantive and political outcomes will also be unclear. Will the EU commitment negotiated by Prime Minister David Cameron that the UK will be exempt from “ever closer union” provide real protection against membership of a developing European federation? Will the EU’s highest court in Luxembourg use the Charter of Fundamental Rights introduced by the Lisbon Treaty to ride roughshod over the House of Commons? Will a referendum victory for Cameron end divisions over the issue of Europe within the Conservative party? Could it even have the opposite effect?
Whether or not the anti-EU forces among the Conservatives accept the result in the event of a pro-European verdict by the voters will depend to a significant extent on the perceived fairness or bias of the referendum process itself. Cries of “foul” will undoubtedly be dismissed as sour grapes but they may well resonate if they are credible.
At this stage, it is hard to judge either the fairness of the referendum rules themselves or whether they are being honoured. A certain amount of grumbling is only to be expected. We are already witnessing bad-tempered quarrelling about the rules of the game to the point at which the chair of the House of Commons select committee responsible for constitutional affairs, the Brexiteer Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, has used Cameron’s appearance on May 4 before the Liaison Committee of the House of Commons to threaten the Government with a legal writ.
It is important to distinguish between several different aspects of discontent as well as between the available evidence for them. The most provocative charges concern alleged dirty deals by the Number 10 team to obtain campaign funds, favourable publicity and the backing of the trade unions as well as parts of the pro-Tory press. So far, this gossip has filtered out mainly through channels such as Private Eye and the website of the blogger Guido Fawkes. A charge made directly to the Prime Minister during his appearance before the Liaison Committee was that he had done a deal with Len McCluskey, leader of the mighty Unite trade union: in exchange for a hefty trade union financial contribution to the “Labour In” campaign, the government would amend its proposed trade union legislation. As Polly Toynbee reported in the Guardian, the Prime Minister “had to call off the dogs and accept the Lords amendments to his flagship trade union bill to have any hope of getting the unions out actively campaigning for remain. . . . Cameron had to do it. He needed unions to fund Alan Johnson’s impoverished Labour In campaign.”
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