So, as expected, Boris Johnson has taken office as the 55th British prime minister, and has cleared his immediate hurdles: his opponents, both within and outside the Conservative Party, have chosen to hold their fire for the time being and see what develops.
But things can’t remain in limbo for long. Parliament is scheduled to resume in early September, and before then Johnson will have to decide what to do: push ahead with minor modifications to the Brexit deal already rejected three times in the Commons; try some radical new negotiating ploy (unlikely to find favor in Brussels); aim for a no-deal exit and dare parliament to stop him; or chance his luck on an early election.
None of his options look particularly inviting. Ian Dunt acidly summed them up earlier this week as follows:
If the [Irish] backstop is not in the withdrawal agreement, the EU will not sign it. If it is in the withdrawal agreement, Johnson cannot get behind it and parliament anyway will not back it. So a deal is impossible.
No-deal, on the other hand, will never pass through parliament. Nor can Johnson try to cancel parliament to get it through. Last week’s vote made it clear MPs wouldn’t stand for it.
Whichever way he looks, he is shackled by a deadlocked parliament. The solution is obvious: hold a general election and try to get some more loyal MPs. But he has ruled that out.
Or he could use a second referendum, but he has ruled that out too.
To get a handle on the multiple decision points involved, check out the magnificent flowchart created by Jon Worth and posted on Reddit. (Hat tip to Robert Wiblin for finding it.)
Worth identifies five possible outcomes as of late October: an election, a fresh referendum, an attempt to push “no deal”, a request for another extension of the 31 October exit deadline (“but with no clear justification,” as he puts it – that is, something other than a short technical extension to allow one of the other options to happen), or agreement on a withdrawal deal.
His assigned probabilities show an election as easily the most likely outcome, with about two chances in three. I tweaked some of his numbers a bit, partly to allow for what’s already happened in the last two days, and got the following:
“No deal” attempt 15.3%
Extension request 6.5%
Brexit deal 7.6%
But the third and fourth of those are just interim stages. What will happen if the Commons votes on the immediate prospect of a no-deal exit – either as proposed by Johnson, or as a result of the EU turning down a requested extension?
It’s possible that in those circumstances MPs will finally approve Theresa May’s deal, or something very like it. It’s also possible that they will fail to stop “no deal”. But more likely than either, it seems to me, is that they would make it impossible for Johnson to carry on and thereby force an election.
So while the chance of the other options is not negligible, I think that an election in November or before is overwhelmingly likely. And as Worth comments, it is “currently impossible to predict what would happen” in that event.
Writing in the Conversation this morning, Craig Berry has another suggestion. He thinks that Johnson will tack “soft”, and try to sign the EU up to a deal that would retain membership of the customs union and the single market for a long transitional period, say five years.
As he says, “This doesn’t fully alleviate the need for something like the backstop – since even five years may not be enough time to agree a trade deal – but with May’s 21-month ‘implementation period’ now irrelevant, it starts to feel purely hypothetical.”
The key to understanding both this idea and its limitations is that Johnson is not a typical Brexiter. He is not personally anti-European or anti-foreigner; he is a free-trader and pro-immigration. There is nothing particularly odd in the thought that he would be comfortable with staying in the single market, including free movement of people, for an extended period.
But what Berry doesn’t explain is how Johnson would get such a proposal through parliament.
Most of the hard Brexiters who populate the Tory backbench (and now much of the front bench as well) are not like Johnson at all. They are nativists and xenophobes; the critical point of Brexit, from their point of view, is the ability to control (that is, restrict) immigration.
Some may follow Johnson regardless, but surely enough of them will realise what is going on to be able to torpedo any such deal in the House of Commons.
Berry’s suggestion is not far from what seemed, a year or so ago, to be Labour’s preferred policy; if it had been tried then, Labour might have provided the votes necessary for it to pass. May refused to go down that track, partly from her own commitment to immigration restriction, but also because she put a higher priority on the preservation of Tory unity.
Johnson lacks the first and is almost certainly less troubled by the second. But that train seems to have left the station. Labour is much less poised for compromise, even if Johnson were minded to try it: smelling blood in the water, it is determined to push for an election.
And if Labour forms government as a result, either on its own or in coalition, it will have little alternative to a fresh referendum to try to sort out the whole mess.