Britain is due to leave the European Union on 31 October, but there is no agreed deal about how this is to happen. Nevertheless, the government insists that it will happen on that date come what may. We’ve been here before, when when Britain was due to leave on 29 March, only for it to collapse at the last minute. What will happen this time?
The first question is whether the UK can get a deal in time. Government supporters say that the EU will buckle at the last minute because the consequences of leaving without a deal would be so dire for them. The one thing that could spoil this, according to this narrative, is if the EU are convinced that the UK is so scared of a no-deal itself that it would ask for an extension. This the EU would accept because secretly they want Britain to stay in, and the constant game of deferral is the only way to keep this possibility in play, while the pro-EU forces gather strength in the UK.
According to this version, the Benn Act, which would force the government to ask for an extension if a deal is not forthcoming by 19th October, is a shot in the foot, which guarantees that the EU will call the government’s bluff. They hint that there is a way around it. What might this be? Perhaps they can persuade one of the EU awkward squad, like Hungary, to veto an extension. But the Hungarian government picks its fights with the EU carefully and it isn’t clear what the upside for them would be. But, then again, if there was no clear rationale for an extension, such as waiting for an election or a referendum, they might be pushing at an open door. Other EU countries are getting fed up with the charade and they might think that a no-deal will work to their advantage; the real hurt will be concentrated in only a few countries.
But could the EU offer Britain anything its government and parliament could accept? The conventional wisdom is that if the EU gave way on the Irish backstop, then a parliamentary majority could be found. The government also wants to point the political declaration part of the deal towards a Canada-style free trade deal, rather than the closer relationship that its predecessor under Theresa May had advocated. Officially the EU has no grounds to oppose this, but they may secretly worry that this would undermine the Single Market in the continuing EU, given the UK’s proximity compared to Canada. Still, that issue can be dealt with later. It is the backstop that is the crunch issue for now.
Here there is a gulf in the way the two sides look at this, or at any rate between how the UK and Irish governments do. On the British side, the EU referendum applies to Northern Ireland by virtue of its membership of the UK. They also take the view that being a member of a customs union is an unacceptable loss of sovereignty, and that special treatment for the province would undermine the integrity of the UK. So the Irish government has just got to lump it; they simply have to accept the Will of the People. The Irish view this differently. To them the North never assented to Brexit, and would almost certainly be happy with some sort of fudge that created a customs border in the Irish Sea. The British government is simply behaving like a colonial occupier in forcing this unwanted policy on an unwilling province, with only the support of hated colonial hardcore, represented by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). They are sick that Brexit has undermined the Northern Ireland peace settlement, as this was based largely on the ambiguity that arose from the membership of the EU of both nations. This narrative goes to the heart of Ireland’s idea of itself, and they might well be prepared to accept the pain of no-deal rather than buckle to the demands of what they see as British arrogance, aided and abetted by the most toxic politicians on the island. With such a gulf in political perceptions it is hard to see how a deal can be reached that will get through the British parliament, as the Irish government has an effective veto.
So, though doubtless the EU is more flexible than it lets on, getting a deal that sticks looks too big an ask. The next question is whether the result will be a further delay or a crash-out. The surest way of securing a delay is for Boris Johnson’s administration to be turfed out and some form of short-term government replace it, pending a general election. But there is a big problem with this. While there is a clear parliamentary majority against a no-deal, this is an awkward coalition between those that want Brexit to happen with a deal, and those who don’t want Brexit to happen at all, subject to a referendum. That makes it hard for such a temporary government to agree on anything useful. It surely could not take forward a referendum before any election. And there is a further problem, who would lead it? The Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn has, justifiably or not, become a toxic figure in British politics, and it is highly unlikely that he can command a parliamentary majority even for a short-term government. This is regardless of how the growing number of Liberal Democrat MPs view the matter, but it would be fatal for that party to lend him their support. And yet so far Mr Corbyn insists that it is him or nobody, based on a not dissimilar political calculation.
So if Mr Johnson cannot be ejected from office, might he ask for a delay, as required by the Benn Act, and go for an immediate general election? This is a real possibility. The conventional wisdom is that if he did so he would be fatally open to attack by The Brexit Party (TBP), who were so devastatingly effective as gathering Tory voters in the May European elections. But I suspect the government is slowly winning a battle of attrition with TBP, and that party could pose a greater threat to Labour, and help the Tories in Labour seats. The will be able to blame the “remoaners” – whom they will have purged from their own party.
And so this boils down to what might happen in a general election, as this will lie behind all the political calculations. As things stand things are looking up for the Conservatives. Labour is losing traction, partly because of the awkwardness of its Brexit policy, and partly because Mr Corbyn has such a low standing with the public. The Liberal Democrats are doing well, and this could cost the Conservatives a lot of seats, and the SNP are set to reverse the Conservative revival in Scotland, but the Tories could do well enough elsewhere to make up for this.
But two questions hang over this analysis. How might a no-deal Brexit alter things? The conventional wisdom is that it would puncture TBP overnight, and that is probably right. But would the Lib Dems benefit from a Remainer backlash, or would they lose out, like TBP, because of the failure of their signature policy, to stop Brexit? On both counts this could work for Labour. The second question is whether Labour’s socialist policies and railing against “Austerity” will gain the party traction once the election gets underway, as it apparently did in 2017. Personally I don’t think it will, but that is not based on any clear evidence. The Labour leadership presumably take a very different view; but I suspect the Tory leadership think that the Labour manifesto will be another suicide note, like its 1983 manifesto, according to legend (and which accords with my memory of 1983). That led to a Tory super-majority.
That leaves two main possibilities. That the government succeeds in engineering a crash out on 31 October. How quickly this will be followed by an election is hard to say, just as what the short term impact of a crash out would be. The other is that the government gets another deferral and goes to the country straightaway. The result of that will either be a Tory majority or yet another hung parliament.
So the anticlimax of 29 March looks very unlikely. One way or another the country is heading for a momentous reckoning.