LONDON (Reuters) - If Scots vote for independence next week, Prime Minister David Cameron could face fierce pressure to resign less than eight months before a national election, MPs in his party say.
A vote to break up the United Kingdom would throw British politics into turmoil and while Cameron has repeatedly insisted he will not quit, secession might well mark the beginning of the end for his leadership.
Bookmakers Ladbrokes have slashed the odds on Cameron being replaced this year to 4/1 from 16/1 in just two days since opinion polls showed a surge of support for independence.
Some MPs in the influential Conservative 1922 Committee, regarded as a barometer of the party’s mood, have been canvassing opinion on whether Cameron would retain their confidence in the event of a lost referendum, a Conservative lawmaker told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“He is going to get the blame if there is a “Yes” vote,” the lawmaker said, adding that he expected several members of the party would call publicly for Cameron to go if that happened.
Support among Conservative back-benchers could be further eroded if the UK Independence Party wins its first parliamentary seat in a by-election next month caused by the defection of one of their Eurosceptic colleagues to the anti-EU movement.
The Conservatives have a long history of ousting leaders if MPs fear for their own re-election. Many are already concerned that UKIP could swallow their vote.
It was Cameron who agreed to hold the Scottish vote and he who vetoed putting a third option offering greater devolution on ballot papers, betting that a stark yes/no choice on independence would deliver a clear victory for the status quo.
When asked if he would resign last week, Cameron said: “No ... emphatically.” Senior ministers, including Chancellor George Osborne, tipped as a possible future leader, have echoed that view.
But going down in history as the man who presided over the break-up of the United Kingdom could be fatal for the leader of a party officially known as the Conservative and Unionist Party.
It adopted that name in 1912 to stress its commitment to preserving the union in the face of Irish nationalism.
Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major, chosen after a back-bench revolt toppled three-time winner Margaret Thatcher in 1990, said Britain would be vastly diminished by a Scottish exit.
“Our role in NATO would be reduced, our relations consequently with the United States would be damaged. The United Kingdom would be weaker in every international body it attends, it certainly would be weaker in the European Union in the forthcoming negotiations,” he told BBC Radio.
He did not comment on Cameron’s position.
Britain’s hard-hitting media may also go for the prime minister’s jugular, although they may spread the blame. Media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Sun, Times, Sunday Times and Sky News, tweeted at the weekend: “Scottish independence means huge black eye for whole political establishment, especially Cameron and (opposition Labour leader Ed) Miliband.”
It would take 46 of the 304 Conservative House of Commons members to force a vote of confidence in his leadership.
Several Conservative MPs told Reuters that Cameron’s opponents in the party, who have differed with him on Europe, gay marriage and military action in Syria, might seek to use a vote for independence to get rid of the 47-year-old leader.
“I’m not sure this will be particularly helpful and I’m not sure it will succeed,” said another Conservative lawmaker who declined to be named. “It will be very destabilising.”
Most Conservatives questioned by Reuters said they thought Cameron should keep his job whatever the result in Scotland.
Until he rushed to Scotland on Wednesday, Cameron had been largely absent from the campaign after conceding that his privileged English background and centre-right politics mean he is not the best person to win over mainly left-wing Scots.
Conservative unpopularity in Scotland, where the party won only one out of 59 parliamentary seats in 2010, has left the case for the union to be put mainly by the Labour party.
Former Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling heads the cross-party “Better Together” campaign while former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown has taken a prominent role in arguing for the union.
The loss of Scotland would pile pressure on Cameron from UKIP, which has taken votes from the Conservatives by crusading for withdrawal from the EU and an end to what it calls “open door” immigration.
“Cameron would be finished,” said David Coburn, a UKIP member of the European Parliament for Scotland. “There will be a night of the long knives.”
If Cameron were ditched, some expect the party would seek a more Eurosceptic leader. Foreign minister Philip Hammond is one possible contender, as are Home Secretary Theresa May and London Mayor Boris Johnson, though he would first have to win a seat in parliament.
While the referendum could seal Cameron’s fate, Labour leader Miliband’s chances of winning a lasting majority would also be thrown into doubt due to the prospect of losing his party’s 41 Scottish MPs.
In the event of a vote for independence, formal separation is not due to take place until March 2016, meaning Scots would vote in the May 7, 2015 general election but their MPs would leave within a year. That could fell a Labour government if Miliband won power next year.
MPs including Scottish Labour deputy leader Anas Sarwar have warned a vote for independence would increase the likelihood of a Conservative government in the rest of the UK.
Peter Kellner, president of pollsters YouGov, highlighted the long-term danger for Labour.
“If we exclude Scotland, then Miliband’s hopes evaporate,” said Kellner. “Next week’s vote could not only change Scotland. It could transform what happens at Westminster.”
A law passed in 2011 fixing the length of a parliament makes it more difficult to change the date of the election, but Conservative lawmaker Rory Stewart said a Scottish “Yes” might raise calls for an immediate national vote.
“Britain overnight, instead of being a confident outward-looking power would be faced with an immediate constitutional crisis. It is not unlikely that there would be a general election if Scotland (voted ‘yes’) - it is certainly not impossible,” Stewart told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs, Alistair Smout and Tim Hepher. Editing by Guy Faulconbridge/Paul Taylor