Rarely has British politics faced such binary questions: Remain or Leave? Deal or no deal? Referendum or no referendum? What kind of a fool is going to make predictions about the coming year? Let me raise my hand.
In truth, the uncertainties we face at the beginning of 2019 are if anything easier to deal with than usual. What derail most predictions are the unknown unknowns. The problems for predicting 2019 look more likely to be known unknowns – who will blink first and in what order? There’s a hard deadline on the biggest political story in Britain so far this century and something is going to have to happen.
To make any sense of what might be coming we first need to understand where we are now. Britain is due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019. That deadline can be extended by unanimous agreement among EU member states or, we now know, it can unilaterally revoked by Britain. There is a deal on the table but it was pulled from a Parliamentary vote as it looked set to be defeated by something like 200 votes. Theresa May is currently casting about looking for ways to tweak the deal to bring some of her opponents on board. The EU have so far proved disobliging in helping her find figleaves.
Her main tactic remains, as always, to run the clock down so that only her deal remains as an option. However, she has committed to bring a meaningful vote forward by 21 January and vote is set to be held before then. There looks to be a two month gap that she is going to need to fill for this plan to work.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be adopting “the worse the better” strategy to Brexit, ideally getting the Conservatives to own a disruptive and unpopular departure from the EU. His priority is getting to power and if a bad Brexit helps Labour, so much the better.
Incidentally, the economy seems set to weaken, partly as a result of all this uncertainty. It’s not as though Britain is surrounded by superstrong economies either.
Meanwhile, Brexit has moved from the political to the personal. 44% of people say that they are a very strong Remainer or Leaver (only 9% say they identify very strongly with a political party). Only 11% of people don’t think of themselves as either a Remainer or a Leaver.
This leads me onto my first, easiest prediction:
1) Whatever happens, Brexit is going to be disfiguring public debate at the end of next year
When people’s identity is bound up with a political outcome, that is going to reverberate regardless of the outcome. No one is going to go quietly. On the contrary, since this is going to be a big year for Brexit, this is only going to intensify.
Let’s be a bit more adventurous.
2) Britain will not leave the EU on 29 March 2019
The deal looks set to fail without a substantial shift in position among MPs, one that does not seem likely to be coming from any quarter, however much some participants might privately regret the trenchant way in which they explained their previous opposition. The default is no deal, but there is a substantial majority in Parliament that considers no deal extremely irresponsible. That substantial majority will find some way to act.
Theresa May is going to run out of road for her delaying tactics before her opponents. Crucially, a revocation of the Article 50 notice could take place relatively quickly if needs be. This means that her tactic of running down the clock should eventually fail, but not, I suspect, before real panic sets in. Either an extension will be negotiated or a revocation will take place to allow Britain to take further stock.
I had previously built up a big betting position on the opposite conclusion. Oh well.
3) There will be a fresh referendum
If there is some extension or revocation of the Article 50 period, that means that the deal will not have passed in time and Parliament will have failed in its duty to implement the previous referendum result. At that point all bets are off and the likeliest outcome is that the public will be asked to give their fresh guidance.
If the 2016 referendum was bitter, a new one would be bitterness squared. Brace yourselves.
4) If there is a fresh referendum, it will be close
Some Leavers have talked about boycotting a fresh referendum. They shouldn’t and they won’t. Although diehard Remainers are super-keen for a fresh referendum, much of the dynamic would favour Leave.
Both sides’ arguments look much weaker than in 2016 (the damage to Britain’s relationship with the EU has already been done and would not be repaired by a change of heart invalidating a major reason for staying in, while the deal is seen as miserably poor and no deal would unarguably be disruptive).
I expect a result something like 52:48 again. Remain would start as marginal favourites. The main thing a new referendum campaign would do is to widen the already sharp divisions between the two camps. Neither seems the least bit interested in finding common ground, merely in defeating their opponents.
5) There won’t be a general election in 2019
It will be in no one’s interests to hold a general election against a background of Brexit chaos so it probably won’t happen. The Conservatives won’t want one while they are broken-backed over Brexit and nor will Labour for the same reason. Ask yourself what either’s manifesto would look like.
If it isn’t taking place then, it probably won’t be taking place later in the year either when everything has settled down a bit. 2022 looks by some way the best bet for the year of the next general election.
6) Neither of the current main party leaders will be in their current role in a year’s time
If Theresa May’s deal goes down, the Prime Minister herself will go down. The single likeliest replacement in those circumstances would be someone capable of leading a single-issue government to conclude the next stage of Brexit, since that would be what was required to command the confidence of the House of Commons. Look for a well-respected Parliamentarian capable of managing egos cross–party. Vince Cable is one possibility (though he really should be stepping down as party leader this coming year too). If you want a quirkier guess, Dominic Grieve.
I suppose that Theresa May might stay on as leader of the Conservative party, as Neville Chamberlain did after being replaced as Prime Minister by Churchill, but I can’t imagine that she would want to. The Conservatives will presumably then choose someone who enthralls them rather than someone who is suitable for the job. Dominic Raab looks well-placed.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn seems completely incapable of understanding how much Brexit means to many of his party’s most ardent supporters. He has proved leaden-footed in dealing with defence rather than attack and he is in serious danger of proving a casualty of the titanic forces the year will unleash.
Far from being Lenin, he may well turn out to be Kerensky. If he is seen as having enabled Brexit, he will not be forgiven. His MPs have never had much faith in him and his success as a leader has been in being a man onto whom supporters can project their own aspirations. That may well be about to come to an abrupt end.
7) British politics will look very different this time next year
As I noted at the start, we are approaching a hard deadline. I may be wrong in all my other predictions but something has to give this year. Whatever happens, large groups of people are going to be appalled by what happens in the coming year. The only question is which groups. The losers, and perhaps any winners, are going to reorganise themselves accordingly.
At the end of it all, confidence in politics and politicians will be at an all-time low and the country will be more divided than ever before. I’d wish you a happy and prosperous New Year but I’m not expecting that for very many of us. Cheers!