Get ready for the most dramatic year in UK politics for decades
2018 was boring, wasn’t it? No leadership change among the three main parties for the first time in four years, only the third year this decade without a general election or a major referendum, and not even the distraction of a big foreign election (the best on offer was the Italian election, which also produced the only change among the G7 leaders).
Except of course it wasn’t. True, we didn’t get the denouements to the main current political stories but they’ve all now been set up. 2018 felt very much like Act III of a four-Act drama: a few second-tier characters were bumped off along the way (we assume) but the momentum is inescapably towards several titanic collisions in the final Act, where nothing can be taken for granted.
This does make predicting the year’s events more tricky than normal. Both the level and the intensity of the uncertainty mean that small changes early on can change the whole complexion of how the year pans out. For that reason, my own predictions look very different to those that Alastair wrote about earlier in the week, despite me agreeing with much of what he says. But one early difference propels my thoughts down very different lines. So, what are they?
(Two quick disclaimers here: firstly, while I’m writing with the language of certainty – ‘X will happen’ – this is shorthand for ‘I believe is most likely to happen of the various possibilities’, which might well be a sub-50 per cent shot; and secondly, these are related contingencies, so something up the line failing will heaving impinge on the predictions that follow)
1. Britain will leave the EU on or shortly after March 29
Brexit will dominate 2019 and especially the first half of the year but as ever, with more noise than light. The PM will fail to get her Deal agreed in January as much the same coalition who were opposed to it in December regather. That will begin the first real panic outside of Westminster, as No Deal really does begin to loom, not least because at that point I expect the PM to make it the government’s central planning expectation. This will not please the many MPs who are adamantly opposed to a No Deal outcome but the advantage of legislative inertia rests with the government and the Hard Leavers (though not entirely – the government needs its own legislation through to implement Brexit). Logic also works against the anti-No Deal majority, in that it is difficult to legislate against a negative outcome other than through positive support for an alternative, and there is no consensus on that alternative and the government is determined to keep the only other option as its own deal.
2 The government will get its Brexit Deal approved
What will ultimately resolve the debate in the government’s favour is there is no alternative. There is no negotiating space for any other deal under current Commons maths and if the PM tried to revoke Article 50, her party would oust her either by mass cabinet resignations or by a Vote of No Confidence (ignore the 12-month ‘protection’: if there’s a majority to NC her, there’s a majority to change that rule). In any case, while the PM has performed plenty of U-turns in her time, she’s also proven stubbornly committed to other policies where she sees it as integral to her political persona. I believe she sees implementing the result of the referendum as one such policy.
So while the government will lose in January, the Deal will remain on the table and with sizable numbers implacably hostile to both No Deal and Remain, ultimately a grudging majority will develop around the only other option. It may be that it takes until after March 29 for that majority – which must inevitably include a substantial number of Labour MPs – to come about, but come about it will. (This final scenario assumes that the EU would be willing to still sign off on a deal that had technically lapsed, should Britain leave on March 29 with no deal agreed; I think it would, as it’s by far the easiest and quickest solution).
3.There will be no second referendum
The logic for a second referendum has always been flawed. The idea that because parliament can’t decide, the matter should be referred back to the people only makes sense if the people have a clear preference (which they don’t), if there is a simple binary choice to be made (there isn’t), and if parliament is determined to implement the public decision, which if it was it wouldn’t need to ask them in the first place. And that’s besides the substantial risk of the public endorsing a No Deal outcome, or the damage that an even more divisive campaign than the first referendum would do to the British body politic. Besides, it’s extremely hard to practically legislate for a referendum while the ratification process is still ongoing but once that process is over, the need for a public vote to ratify it vanishes.
4.There will be no Government of National Unity
One of the more fanciful staples of Brexit prediction is of a centrist National Government forming in order to see Brexit through (or reversed). For practical purposes, as mentioned above, I think May will achieve the effect without the need for the reality. However, it wouldn’t happen anyway for the simple reason that there is no national unity and there’s no consensus on what the problem is, never mind the solution (is the problem how to implement Brexit, or is it Brexit itself?). Nor does a GNU work on narrower partisan grounds, as it requires both main parties to split – yet as soon as one does, that gives a massive incentive to the other not to.
5.There will, however, be a general election
All prime ministers survive by retaining at all times the support of two essential groups: their Party (in whatever form that Party’s constitution mandates), and the House of Commons. Theresa May’s survival through 2018 depended on retaining the support of a majority of her own MPs, which she just managed, and also keeping the Dup onside, which she also only just managed – and that only because her Brexit Deal didn’t come to the crunch. If 2019 prompts a choice between the DUP and her Brexit Deal – and it probably will – I expect her to go for the latter. This will trigger the loss of DUP support, which will in turn produce at some point shortly afterwards a Vote of No Confidence, which the government will lose. It’s possible that Corbyn might try to form a government but in these circumstances, with Brexit effectively sealed, the DUP would have no interest in installing him, particularly with Corbyn’s own star waning within Labour.
6.A general election is so unpredictable as to be uncallable
Much as I would like to give a prediction for something that could happen within the next six months, the contingencies at this stage become simply too great. We don’t know what would happen within the two-week post-VoNC period – would the Tories try to replace their leader with a consensus candidate? If so, who? – we don’t know how a post-Brexit election would play out with both main parties having parted significantly from their core vote: the Tories delivering only a partial Brexit, which Labour MPs would have enabled and Corbyn would appear particularly culpable for, having given no practical succour to Continuity Remainers. We shouldn’t expect a re-run of 2017. On the other hand, nor should we expect anything like normal either.
7.At least one and perhaps all three main party leaders will go
In many ways, it’s remarkable that the May-Corbyn-Cable collective have survived this long. Corbyn should have been ousted in 2016 when the great majority of his MPs No Confidenced him, May should have gone after the bungled election last year, and Cable has proven utterly ineffective against two weak leaders and with the Remain field to himself. 2019 will leave no place to hide. Possibly the ructions of the year will enable one leader to ride the waves sufficiently effectively to survive but both the risks are such that the likelihood is that at least one, probably two and possibly all three won’t. Again, because so much depends on the circumstances in which they go, I’m not going to name names here as there’s not space to look at probabilities in the round.
8.There will be no major realignment of the parties
Despite all of what’s gone before, the rule that ‘things don’t happen as much as generally expected’ still applies. In this case, the party structure is resilient. Certainly, there is a divide within the public between Leavers and Remainers (or, as we go forward, between Stay-Outs and Back-Ins), and that divide doesn’t neatly fit the party structure which is still based largely on economic and social domestic policy. Even so, important though Brexit is, it’s not so defining as to break the party system. To the extent that the realignment that’s already begun will continue, it’ll happen using the existing parties (the exception might be UKIP, though that’s a fringe case).
One of the Christmas cards I received this year wished me a dull, dull 2019, alluding (I hope) to Brexit and the famed Chinese proverb. It will be, I fear, a wish in vain.