Coincidentally, I’m in Norway just as Britain edges closer to the “Norwegian option” for leaving the European Union: that is, remaining bound by EU rules but having no say in their formation.
Not that prime minister Theresa May has officially espoused that goal, but she’s close enough to it to have upset her party’s Europhobic wing. Hence the resignations yesterday and today of Brexit secretary David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
I haven’t been able to read most of the commentary on the crisis, but what I’ve read suggests that no-one else knows what’s going on either. The Conservative Party really does seem to have got itself into an impossible situation this time.
Except there’s no such thing as an impossible situation: something has to happen. It’s no good listing all the options and saying that none of them make sense (even if they don’t), because we know something will come of it, somehow.
So, for what it’s worth, here’s my list.
A. May toughs it out
The prime minister may just push ahead on her current path and dare the rebels to bring her down. The problem is that May was already badly weakened by last year’s election, and now there’s an alternative she will have her work cut out winning a party ballot. Tory members are deeply Europhobic, and a leader who can be painted as going soft on Brexit is in a difficult position.
B. May goes hard Brexit
The ostensible short-term aim of the rebels is to change the government’s Brexit position, so one possibility is that it will succeed in doing that: May will tack “hard” to keep her job. The problem with that is that if there was a sensible hard Brexit option available, May would already be pursuing it. She is where she is not because she is committed to soft Brexit, but because of the logic of the situation.
The reality is that any hard Brexit strategy is going to be deeply unsatisfactory; it is going to involve unpleasant moves such as, for example, throwing the Irish under the bus in relation to border controls. But without Northern Ireland’s DUP, the government has no majority in the House of Commons.
Hard Brexit can’t get through parliament, and the attempt to try will probably lead in short order to a Labour government.
C. Johnson goes hard Brexit
The real aim of the rebels, of course, is to replace May in the leadership. If they succeed, and Johnson becomes prime minister, it will probably be with the thought that he can square the circle and get hard Brexit through the Commons.
But the numbers are against him even more than against May. Some of the pro-European Tories may hesitate to bring down May if she embraces hard Brexit, for fear of letting in, well, Johnson. If he’s already in, that hesitation will quickly disappear.
D. Johnson goes soft Brexit
But maybe that’s not Johnson’s plan. Maybe he’s convinced that just as only Nixon could go to China, he is the one person who could sell soft Brexit to the Tory backbench, and do the deal that he’s now trying to stop May from doing.
If so, he’s almost certainly wrong – but of course that wouldn’t be the first thing that Johnson’s been wrong about.
E. Johnson goes to the polls
Johnson also has another option that May doesn’t: rather than commit himself to a particular Brexit strategy, he could call another early election, seeking a mandate to unleash his wizardry on the EU in some unspecified fashion.
It’s hard to imagine that resulting in anything other than a Labour victory. Remember, only 51.9% voted for any sort of Brexit – no election is going to produce a majority for hard Brexit.
F. Tories try to compromise
It doesn’t have to be May or Johnson; maybe the Tories, having concluded that May is fatally weakened, could try to find a compromise candidate who would keep Johnson at bay and reconcile the competing sides.
It’s not impossible, but any new leader will still face the same parliamentary logic. They may be able to paper over the party’s internal cracks, but a deal of some sort with the EU still has to be reached.
G. May spits the dummy
As prime minister, May doesn’t have to wait for the party to move against her. She could move first: go to the Queen, say that the party has made her position untenable, present her resignation and advise her to send for Jeremy Corbyn – hoping that his failure would lead to May or one of her allies being seen as indispensable.
But having shown themselves incapable of organising the proverbial chook raffle, it’s hard to see the Tories, once out of office, being allowed back for a considerable time.
H. And Corbyn does what?
Many of the options seem to end, sooner or later, with a Corbyn government. But that doesn’t solve the underlying problem, it just kicks it down the road a little. The options Corbyn would face are just as unsatisfactory as the Conservatives’, and in his own way Corbyn is probably as ill-equipped to deal with them as is Johnson.
If he reached government as the result of a vote in the Commons, Corbyn would be keen on an immediate election; he would be unlikely to try to govern with a House elected for his predecessor. But in that case he would need to decide just what mandate he was seeking. To imitate Norway? To compromise with the hard Brexiteers? To work his own unspecified magic on the bewildered Europeans?
Or even, maybe, to contemplate a fresh referendum?
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