Three paths to instability

Three paths to instability

We now have the archetypal scenario of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. Boris Johnson has now made so many “October 31 unless the backstop gets it” speeches that it’s time to believe him: if he rowed back from it now, Farage would eat him alive, and the ERG would consume the remains. The EU has said so often that they will not alter, let alone remove, the backstop that it is inconceivable that they will even contemplate it. 

The much-trailed main consequence is that we attempt to leave on October 31 without a deal and the majority in Parliament attempts to block it. While it is conceivable that Boris will then circumvent Parliament by proroguing, what would he do for afters, with an infuriated Commons majority itching to take revenge? No, as many have said, the consequence is then an election. “The Europeans are impossible, Parliament is weak-willed, give me a proper majority”. 

Scenario 1 is a Boris triumph. Swept back with a majority of 100 fervent Brexiteers, he leads us out of the EU with minimal arrangements to prevent total chaos. People muddle through – we don’t run out of food and medicine, but trade struggles to adapt, the pound slides, investment slumps and the trade talks inch forward over years. After years of fire-fighting, some sort of stability is achieved, but we are in recession and the Tories lose the following election to whoever has emerged standing from the Opposition bunfight.

Scenario 2 is the opposite. It goes horribly wrong. Remain voters fairly successfully work out how to vote tactically, and we end up with a Lab/LD/SNP majority. On anything remotely like current polling, nobody will have an overall majority. A weak minority government surviving on confidence and supply will then be formed – probably under Corbyn, possibly under Swinson.

An actual coalition will not happen – Swinson has ruled it out, saving Labour the trouble. The Parliamentary majority will only be able to agree on one major thing: a second referendum. Possibly an attempt will be made at new negotiations with a customs union and something like free trade – in effect an EFTA deal – but it’s hard to see a path to a Parliamentary majority for it. But even then, a referendum is certain.

Scenario 2A is that Remain wins. The majority then falls apart and a new election called. What will have the Tories been doing? Probably Boris will retire to concentrate on entertaining articles and the new leader will be somewhat more ambiguous on Brexit – after a Remain vote, it will attract general derision if the Conservatives seek election on the basis that they’ll immediately start with Article 50 all over again. So after a fashion, grumpily, Britain will then move on from Brexit, with unpredictable results on the body politic.

Scenario 2B is that Leave wins – either with No Deal or the EFTA-style fix. Again it’s hard to see the weak coalition surviving for long, so a new election follows, which the Tories would probably win convincingly – the Remainers will be in total disarray and it will look logical for the Tories to govern the outcome they’ve campaigned for.

Scenario 3 is 2017 redux. Boris sort of wins, but without a majority. What then? He might resign, but I think his innate flexibility will then kick in. “I wanted to leave without fuss, but the voters disagreed, dammit.” He will then try to get a May-style deal, counting on general exasperation to get it through. If he succeeds, he carries on in Government and we all stumble into the future. If he fails, he will be replaced by an ERG ultra – Baker is the obvious choice and, once again, we see another election, which I think leads to Scenario 2, as there isn’t really a majority in the public for Bakerism.

An interesting thing is that it’s not clear what anyone should hope for. A Remainer will fancy 2A or, nervously, 3, but could easily find they get 1 or 2B. A Leaver will fancy 1 or especially 2B, but could easily get 2A or 3. But all the scenarios have one common factor: a prolonged period of instability. 

It is hard to see any of the scenarios as being in the national interest, but we are where we are. With the best will in the world, serious investment in Britain will be sparse for the next few years. Which may, strategically, mean that whatever government emerges from the smoke in 2020 discovers another classic scenario. 

The poisoned chalice.

Nick Palmer

Nick Palmer was Labour MP for Broxtowe, 1997-2010.

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