David Cameron risks becoming the Conservative Party's Lost Leader if Britain votes Yes to AV.
It's too early to guess the AV referendum result but not too early to try a thought experiment. So let's imagine first that the people vote "Yes", and then imagine what follows.
David Cameron will be -
- Blamed - fairly or unfairly - for conceding the referendum by many Conservative MPs and Party members.
- Blamed for not winning the election outright. As I've written before, I don't think that this charge is entirely just, but there's a lot of force in it. The matter will suddenly become topical once again.
- Blamed for leaving the Liberal Democrats in pole position. They'd gain less from AV than some suppose. But - assuming any substantial poll recovery by the third party - they'd be bound to pick up blue transfers where they're second to Labour, and red transfers where they're second to the Conservatives. This expectation would give a big boost to their bargaining position within the Coalition.
- Blamed for making it impossible for a Conservative Prime Minister to lead a Conservative Government ever again. This charge is extravagant, because no-one knows what will happen in the future. That won't stop it being made.
- Blamed, above all, by Conservative MPs for putting their seats in peril. MPs who have the Liberal Democrats a close second will be especially enraged. They'll fear a Liberal Democrat recovery...and the yellow candidate taken over the winning line by Labour transfers.
The Prime Minister will also be blamed for the A-list, for the expenses purge, for bouncing the Party into coalition, for trying to scrap the 1922 committee, for not abolishing IPSA, for running the Party by clique, for not winning England's World Cup bid, for rats in Downing Street...you know the drill.
In short, the cry will be: "First he messes up the election. Now he's messed up the referendum. We'll never govern again on our own - and I'm going to lose my seat."
Even in such circumstances, the Government is unlikely to collapse. Both Tory MPs, furious with the Prime Minister, and Liberal Democrat ones, rejuvenated by a "Yes" vote, would have a common reason not to pull down the pillars of the Coalition temple: both would fear being ousted at the polls.
But Cameron would have lost the confidence of the Parliamentary Party. New, "collective leadership" would be demanded. There'd probably be a Cabinet reshuffle, and not on his terms.
His authority would be weakened and the Government vulnerable to events. Inevitably, there'd be talk of a challenge, but there's no obvious successor. At any rate, the Prime Minister would be in danger of becoming what Nigel Birch once called one of his heroes, Harold Macmillan: the lost leader.
Some will consider this article "unhelpful". On the contrary, it's extremely helpful. There are fewer than twelve weeks until polling day. If Downing Street doesn't pull its finger out and get behind the No Campaign, the above - or something very like it - is what will happen.
So it's best to face up to that now.