The transition has ended. But what's happening in the parallel universe where we never left the EU?

Everything and nothing would be different

January 01, 2021
He could have won in 2016—but the victory would have been short-lived. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images
He could have won in 2016—but the victory would have been short-lived. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images

Shortly after the UK voted to Leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, Dominic Cummings wrote a blog. “Reality has branching histories, not ‘a big why’,” the director of the Vote Leave campaign wrote. “The branching histories are forgotten” in retrospect “and the actual branch taken, often because of some relatively trivial event casting a huge shadow, seems overwhelmingly probable.”

But Cummings argued that the “cold reality” of the Brexit referendum was that the eventual outcome was far from inevitable. If Michael Gove had stayed out of the campaign then Vote Leave would almost certainly have collapsed or been forced into a losing strategic position. If Boris Johnson had opted for Remain, then the Brexit campaign would have floundered because it would have been fronted by the far less popular Nigel Farage. “Many of these actions were profoundly nonlinear and interdependent and the result that we actually witnessed was very close,” wrote the man who went on to become Johnson’s senior adviser in Downing Street. “If about 600,000 people—just over 1 per cent of registered voters—had decided differently, IN would have won. This is a small enough margin that it could easily have happened if quite a few specific events and decisions had turned out differently.”

So what if it did? What would have happened if Remain had won? This is a thought experiment that involves going back to June 2016 and taking the alternative branch of history. In this scenario, it is not Gove and Johnson who emerge blinking into the sunlight and looking stunned by their victory the day after the referendum. They are officially nursing their wounds, but secretly feeling slightly relieved that they do not have to deliver on the promises they made during the referendum campaign or work out what on earth Brexit actually means. Instead David Cameron stands at a podium outside Number 10 to express his relief at the result on the morning of 24th June 2016. In a carefully calibrated speech, he does not gloat but pronounces that it is time for the country to come together, put the divisions of the past few months behind it, and move on.

The days after the referendum are very different. Cameron stays on as prime minister, rather than immediately announcing his resignation and being photographed with his family outside Number 10. There is no shambolic Tory leadership contest in which candidates drop out one after the other in quick succession, and there is, of course, no prime minister Theresa May.

Labour is deeply divided, with MPs furious with Corbyn’s lacklustre approach to the referendum campaign. But their anger is assuaged by the fact that the country did narrowly vote to stay in the EU and so there is no 2016 “coup.” Oddly this in some ways weakens Corbyn’s position, because he does not have the chance to see off his critics and prove he still has the support of the party membership. His authority has been fatally undermined in the parliamentary party and he never recovers the respect of his MPs. He limps on, an Opposition leader in limbo and taking the party in the wrong direction—but safe from challenge for now.

A cabinet reshuffle sees Remainers rewarded with top jobs, although Cameron does also make some tokenistic “unity” promotions of Eurosceptics. Gove becomes home secretary, the job he has always craved. George Osborne goes to the Foreign Office, to burnish credentials as the heir apparent to Cameron and prime minister in waiting (although he soon comes to realise that the Tory Party will never choose the champion of Remain to lead it and begins to contemplate standing down as an MP).

Amber Rudd becomes justice secretary and lord chancellor, to oversee prison reform. David Gauke, then financial secretary to the Treasury, is promoted to the chancellor’s job. He is a safe pair of hands who has shown his loyalty to Cameron and the prime minister declares it is time to “uncork the Gauke” and unleash his trusted ally on the economy. Instead of market wobbles, there is a post-referendum boost in business and consumer confidence and the economy starts to grow.

In his first Budget, which takes place a month after the referendum, Gauke declares that he is easing austerity, a symbolic break with his predecessor but one that is approved by Cameron, who is also keen to turn the page on the era of pain. The new chancellor makes clear that he is prioritising higher spending rather than tax cuts.

The real-life 2020 version of Gauke tells me that if he had been put in charge of the Treasury he would have focused on infrastructure, especially the Oxford to Cambridge corridor which he would have made his “thing”—a science and technology hub promoting industries of the future. He would also have made a point of linking the northern cities, continuing Osborne’s “Northern powerhouse” agenda. 

In Gauke’s view, the economy would have grown faster if the country had voted to stay in the EU, but a government led by the Remain-supporting Tory leader would have been in political difficulty. “With a strong economy and Jeremy Corbyn still leading the Labour Party the situation might have looked encouraging,” he told me. “But a narrow win for Remain would have left the Conservatives still deeply divided. Many in the party would have taken a close defeat as a mandate for pushing for a more distant relationship within the EU and even looking for an opportunity to rerun the referendum. This mood would have made it increasingly difficult for David Cameron, with many MPs agitating to replace him with a leader who could appeal more to Leave voters. Had Remain won, maybe Boris Johnson might have become Prime Minister two years earlier.”

In the alternative version of history, the Tory Party’s frustrations reach boiling point over the summer. MPs and grassroots members are furious with Cameron and Osborne for denying them their Brexit dream. They mutter about betrayal and claim the prime minister is out of touch with the party he leads. A charm offensive is launched by Number 10, with senior backbenchers including Iain Duncan Smith and Bernard Jenkin invited to drinks parties in the Downing Street rose garden. It fails.

Craig Oliver, Downing Street director of strategic communications under Cameron, believes that there would have been a leadership challenge to Cameron possibly as early as the 2016 Conservative conference, ultimately triggering a leadership contest in which the candidates competed to outflank each other to the right on Europe. “I am certain that David Cameron would not have lasted very long as Conservative leader, he would have been presiding over a party that had become religious about Brexit. Boris Johnson, who would have had a team with more time to organise, and as the true champion of Brexit, would have become leader and a lot of the stuff that we have seen in the last four years would have been accelerated without the Theresa May interregnum.” In Oliver’s view, Johnson would have offered another referendum during the leadership contest to secure the crown. He would then have fought and won a general election in 2017 with a manifesto commitment to hold a second Brexit vote, urging voters to “tell them again.” Having helped run the Remain campaign in 2016, Oliver believes that the country would almost certainly have voted to Leave. “I have a sinking feeling that we wouldn’t necessarily have been too far away from where we are now,” he laments. A former cabinet minister says: “Boris is the itch the Tory Party had to scratch.” 

And of course, whatever the result of the EU referendum, the country would have still faced a devastating pandemic in 2020 that arguably dwarfs the impact of the Brexit vote. Perhaps in this case the branching histories lead back to the same reality trunk—with the national interest sidelined by the narrow political concerns of the Conservative Party.