Back in January I placed my first political bet: on Brexit happening on the due date of 29 March 2019. The odds had slipped to 5:1 against and I thought the combined chances of the government squeaking through a deal by then, or failing miserably and Britain crashing out on that date, were higher than that. Since then, the market has moved somewhat towards my view, and I have laid the bet at a modest profit. But what really are the chances?
I placed my bet just after the government’s first massive defeat on the “meaningful vote”, after which there have been two developments. First the government cobbled together an unstable majority for a deal without the Irish backstop. Second there have been moves towards a compromise with the Labour Party based on a customs union. It is hard to know what to make of either development. The Irish backstop is not going away, but winning the vote has allowed the government to press on based on Conservative and DUP votes, together with a few opposition MPs. It is hard to see this holding together, since anything the EU will offer will look like a climbdown for the hardliners, who don’t seem all that bothered by the thought of the UK crashing out without a deal. That was confirmed last week when the government lost on its fudged interim motion.
And Labour’s move? Well this does look like a bit of leadership at last from its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It could be the first stages of a bold move to secure a soft-Brexit deal, based on Labour, Conservative and maybe even DUP and SNP votes. But if the Prime Minister, Theresa May, pressed ahead on this, it really would be a Robert Peel moment that would shatter the Conservative Party. Peel did so in the 1840s by opposing the Corn Laws, a particularly egregious piece of law, which was designed to keep landowners in the money at the expense of everybody else, including Irish peasants starving as a result of potato blight. That some Tories, like Jacob Rees-Mogg view the episode (i.e. Peel’s splitting of the Tories) as a national disaster makes my blood run cold. But I think if Mrs May had the character to do a Peel (as I suggested she might last year) we’d have seen more sign of it by now. Besides there is the question about how serious Mr Corbyn is in executing such a brave move. Cynics suggest he was making an offer he knew the government could not accept.
All of which suggests that we are hurtling towards 29th March and a crash out. Or at best massive confusion as the government will be unable to enact the necessary legislation for deal if it succeeds at the 11th hour.
It seems clear that the only way to avoid a no-deal Brexit on 29 March is to postpone the exit date. This comes in two flavours. One is a three month delay – just enough to avoid Britain having to take part in European parliamentary elections, though probably too late for the EU to redistribute the country’s seats. The other is a long one, of twelve months, which would mean Britain having to join those Euro elections.
Why go for the shorter delay? If the government actually has managed to get a deal through parliament, then it gives them time to enact it. It would also give the country a chance to have a general election, if the government wants. It does seem to be preparing for an election, but perhaps only to keep the option on the table: it is hard to see what the party would gain, though Labour’s growing disarray may tempt them. (This disarray was added to yesterday by the resignation of seven MPs – though this is a tremor rather than an earthquake and I’m not getting excited about it yet). And it would allow both sides a bit better prepared for a no-deal crash. One thing does seem clear though: it isn’t enough time to forge and enact a new deal. Why would the EU side agree? Only to be better prepared for the crash when it comes – which might be enough.
So why go for a longer delay? This gives Britain the chance to take a deep breath and have another go, under a new leader. If Mrs May conceded this, she would doubtless resign, so much has she staked on 29 March. We would have time to replace the Conservative leader, have an election, and perhaps even have a referendum. There would, of course, be an incandescent reaction from Brexit supporters. These comprise at least a third of the population, and views amongst this third seem to hardening – with no-deal a popular option. Perhaps they would channel their anger by trying to get an extremist as the new Tory leader.
It is possible that the EU side will offer the UK a 12 month postponement and nothing shorter. If so Mrs May would have to choose between no-deal and an admission of complete failure: caught by her own brinkmanship. And who knows what she would do then?