Year four in the Big Brexit house and the housemates are not getting any happier. The referendum vote saw off one Prime Minister immediately and a second is shortly to be evicted from Number 10 before Britain has left the EU. It’s entirely possible that Theresa May’s replacement might be ousted before Brexit is implemented too.
Before contemplating the fate of the next Conservative leader, let’s start by looking at how the country is shaping up now. It’s not looking good.
Opinion polling has to be taken with a pinch of salt at all times, but the polls have given a pretty consistent message for quite a long time that the country remains pretty evenly divided between those who think the decision to leave was correct and those who think the country is making a huge mistake.
The Remainers appear to have a small but steady lead (“right to leave” last had a majority with YouGov over a year ago), but it’s hardly a slam dunk: “wrong to leave” led in the most recent poll 47:41, which when you strip out don’t knows comes to 53:47. The original optimism that Brexit would be all over by Christmas has turned into trench warfare.
The closeness of public opinion has not led to increased empathy for the other side’s viewpoint. On the contrary, there is waning appetite for compromise. In the most recent YouGov poll on the government’s options, 37% would consider it an acceptable compromise or better for Britain to leave the EU with no deal.
45% would consider it an acceptable compromise or better for Britain to have a fresh referendum and vote to remain in the EU after all. Just 35%, however, would regard the negotiated deal as tolerable or better. Extreme outcomes poll better.
Yet 61% (according to a poll from Britain Thinks) agree that the only way to resolve Brexit is for all sides to compromise. No wonder 59% are fairly or very pessimistic about the Brexit outcome over the next year. 79% of Britons are reported as thinking that the country is on the wrong track.
For that compromise does not look like happening. 6 million people signed a Parliamentary petition to revoke the Article 50 notice – in effect, to overturn the referendum decision without so much as a ratifying vote. On the other side of the fence, the most recent YouGov poll on the subject disclosed that 30% think it would be acceptable to prorogue Parliament (effectively, suspend democracy) in order to prevent Parliament voting against no deal. Everyone wants compromise, but on their own terms.
What in practice is the country likely to get? Whoever wins the Conservative leadership election (Boris Johnson, let’s cut to the chase) is going to have to try to put a government together with an ethereal majority. Indeed, it’s not absolutely certain that the winner will get to be Prime Minister: with Chris Davies recalled by his constituents and with the displeasure of a fair few irreconcilable Conservatives manifest, the winner might yet struggle to demonstrate that he will command the confidence of the House of Commons.
Assuming that challenge is passed, the next Conservative leader has already decided that the withdrawal agreement needs to be changed. Both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson are committed to renegotiate. Jeremy Hunt is prepared to delay beyond 31 October 2019 to secure such a deal while Boris Johnson is presenting that as a hard deadline. Both affect to be prepared for no deal if necessary.
The Conservative leadership race is taking place in a bubble. The candidates know their audience. An absolute majority of Conservative members voted for the Brexit party at the European elections. According to a YouGov poll, more than half of them would accept the break-up of the union with Scotland, losing Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, significant economic damage and the destruction of the Conservative party itself so long as Brexit was achieved. Shilly-shallying is a vote-loser.
Outside that bubble, Parliament still has a substantial majority against no deal. Outside that bubble, the warnings about the effects of no deal are continuing to be made. A Cabinet note warned that the country would not be ready for a no-deal Brexit on 31 October 2019. The Healthcare Distribution Association warned the Brexit select committee that no deal Brexit on that date would lead to medicine shortages.
The EU is currently in transition following the European Parliament elections so it is far from clear who any new Prime Minister would try to renegotiate with in the first place. There are shoals of legislation that would need to be passed before Brexit took effect. How this is to be achieved in a House that is out of the government’s control in the time available is at present obscure.
In short, the leadership candidates are both peddling a fantasy. Perhaps Boris Johnson is planning an early general election – from his viewpoint he might be as happy to lose it and be able to rail against Brexit’s betrayal than to win it and have to implement a programme that was either unworkable or would lead to severe disruption.
Meanwhile, the economy has started to falter. The Bank of England thinks that growth in the second quarter will be zero. This partly reflects the unwinding of stockbuilding in the run-up to the phantom Brexit of 29 March 2019. Still, growth is at best anaemic and the political uncertainty is only increasing. Paralysis in decision-making is likely only to continue.
So three years on, the country is divided, opinions are getting more extreme and more entrenched, no one wants to make compromises and the leading candidates for Prime Minister are offering impossible prospectuses. Meanwhile, the economy falters. Happy Anniversary.