If Britain sides against Cameron on Europe, his authority will be shatteredby Malcolm Rifkind / January 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after at an EU summit in Brussels in Oct. 2015 . ©Francois Walschaerts/AP/PA Read more: Would it actually matter if we left the EU? Read more: Twelve things you need to know about Brexit When, sometime this year, the people of Britain cast their votes in the European referendum, they not only could change the whole course of British history. They could also bring David Cameron’s residence in 10 Downing Street to a sudden and dramatic end. The fate of one man, however eminent, is of little significance compared to the fate of nations. He has been a successful Prime Minister and remains, after five years, well respected. He would, I suspect, be the first to say that that should not be particularly relevant in deciding whether you, or I, vote for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union or propel our country into the outer light (or darkness, depending on your point of view). Why Cameron’s fate is linked to the outcome of the referendum is hardly difficult to explain. He has said, publicly and unequivocally, that if he is successful in the current negotiation with his European colleagues he will recommend to the British public that we should remain in the EU and that he will fight “heart and soul” to achieve that end. If he ends up doing so, and we then reject his advice, his authority will be shattered. He has already said that it is his intention to retire as Prime Minister by the end of this Parliament in 2020. Politics is a brutal business. He would be seen both by his fellow citizens, and internationally, as a “lame duck” Prime Minister. Once such a reputation is achieved it is very difficult to lose. I am assuming that the Prime Minister will be recommending our continued membership of the EU after these negotiations are concluded. We cannot take that for granted. He has said that if he did not get the reforms he is seeking he would not pretend otherwise and that Brexit would be difficult to avoid. Read more on the European Union referendum: Why brexit could be Britain’s biggest diplomatic disaster EU referendum: stop the slide towards Brexit However, of the four objectives that he outlined in his letter to the President of the European Union Donald Tusk, three are already virtually in the bag. All his negotiating partners agree that those EU members not in the Eurozone must not be discriminated against. Secondly, there is widespread acceptance that “ever closer union” cannot be used to commit all members to more and more integration. Even the Dutch, enthusiasts for the European ideal, have said that those days are over. And, thirdly, no one disputes the need to reduce and remove many of the EU regulations that are an unnecessary burden on business. That leaves welfare benefits for EU migrants which have proved to be the most difficult. But already there are clear indications that this reform might, after all, be able to be achieved in a manner which is non-discriminatory and which respects the rights of all member states. When I was Foreign Secretary I discovered that when all EU members are looking for a solution to a problem, they find one. On memorable occasions when a deal had to be done by a specific time the clocks, quite literally, were stopped until agreement was reached. We are in that territory now. But we cannot be certain that the Prime Minister’s recommendation to the British public would be accepted. British opinion is much more divided than when Harold Wilson had a comparable referendum in 1975. Then Enoch Powell and Tony Benn were lonely voices urging Britain to leave. Now, former Chancellors Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont will support Brexit as will three or four Cabinet Ministers and a significant minority of Tory MPs. If their view was to prevail then the first duty of the Prime Minister, thereafter, would be to begin the arduous, complex and unpredictable negotiation with the EU of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe once it ceased to be a member. That would, in my view, need a new Prime Minister. It would not, necessarily, need to be a Prime Minister who had voted for Brexit but it would have to be someone with the energy, ability and credibility to steer the United Kingdom through these uncharted waters. When the Argentinians invaded the Falklands the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, resigned. He did so not because he was personally responsible but because this disaster had happened “on his watch”. I have no doubt that David Cameron would reach a similar conclusion. I do not believe that this judgment, at the end of the day, will need to be tested. But if I am wrong one thing will be clear: the future will not be what it used to be.