This blog was written before the Prime Minister decided to suspend Parliament. Tossed like a grenade into the heart of Brexit and our political system, it appears to have put the PM on the front foot. However, the central message of my blog here remains the same and is just as important. There are still many moving parts in the Brexit process and the next few weeks remain hugely uncertain and unpredictable. It is distinctly possible that the PM has overreached himself and overplayed his hand. Pro-EU campaigners must keep active and maintain the pressure on MPs to thwart this outrageous abuse of power.
Since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on 24th July I’ve heard plenty of gloom-laden predictions about Brexit. It seems that a no deal Brexit is inevitable; it’s too late to stop it. Either the EU completely caves in on the Irish border backstop or a no deal Brexit occurs on 31st October.
However, to me the Brexit process is much too complex and unprecedented to predict with any degree of certainty. Behind the bombastic façade, Johnson and his team will be much less certain than they appear. They’ll be assessing a wide range of factors about which neither they nor anyone else can be sure about. This uncertainty surely must give Remainers hope.
First the gloom
The gloom pervades some Twitter threads I’ve read, email conversations, and the mood of some members of the public during street campaigning. The gloomy outlook is that Johnson determined to go ahead with no deal unless there is a very big concession from the EU. The EU may offer some small concessions, but scrapping the backstop entirely seems highly unlikely. A no deal Brexit thus seems inevitable unless parliament can stop it.
Stopping no deal will be very difficult, despite the majority of MPs being against it. They could pass various amendments or resolutions but these would have no legal force. The government will ignore them and a no deal exit will happen on 31st October by default.
Another approach would be for MPs to bring the government down. A government of many stripes could then be formed, including some pro-EU Conservatives. But the division among the opposition parties makes this seem unlikely.
Without an alternative government a general election would ensue whose schedule would be controlled by Johnson. An election could be held around about 31stOctober, the date Brexit is due or just after. With Parliament not sitting, a no deal Brexit would go ahead automatically.
Hope in uncertainty?
There are, however, many questions about this gloomy outlook. Brexit is a highly complex process with many variables few of which anyone can be fully sure about. A very different and more positive outcome is entirely possible.
Currently the consensus of opinion among commentators seems to be that Johnson is not bluffing about a no deal Brexit. But how sure can we be about what he is thinking and likely to do? And it is not only Johnson that matters – his senior ministers do too. We can be even less sure about them. Behind their confident façade they’ll be making difficult judgements about a wide range of issues, such as:
– the possibility of getting a ‘better’ deal with the EU;
– the practical and political consequences of no deal;
– the prospects for negotiating with the EU after no deal;
– how moderate Conservative MPs will react;
– how opposition MPs will react and how united anti no-deal MPs will be;
– how the Brexit ultra MPs (Conservative and DUP) and the Brexit Party will respond;
– how public opinion will develop and how a general election or even a referendum would go.
None of these can be predicted with any degree of certainty. Nor can anyone be sure about how these factors will interact with each other in the complex Brexit melange. On top of all this some unexpected external event could upset everything.
We also cannot rule out MPs finding an exceptional way of stopping no deal. Many people thought that a no deal Brexit was inevitable in March or soon after. In the event MPs did find a way to stop it. If they could do it then, why can’t they do it now? As Ian Dunt has recently argued, MPs still have significant powers at their disposal to stop no deal.
What matters above all is the determination and will of MPs to stop no deal. Any attempt to bypass MPs (suspending Parliament or holding an election on or after 31stOctober) would be a gross affront to democracy. Many MPs will surely be outraged. Exactly how they will react cannot be easily predicted. But it’s entirely possible that MPs will find a way to pass a law to force Johnson to seek an extension to article 50 or bring the government down and form a temporary government to stop no deal.
And if there is an election, its outcome is far from certain, even if the Conservatives and Brexit Party look strong now. The Conservative party almost always has the majority of the media behind it and far greater funds than the other parties. Yet they don’t always win. There have been Labour governments in the past. Theresa May was widely seen to be heading for a clear majority in the 2017 election yet she failed.
Many moving parts
The whole Brexit process is surely too chaotic, complex and unprecedented to attach any certainty to the outcome. Unexpected things happen in politics. If a week is a long time in politics, two months is an eternity.
As Professor Chris Grey recently said (2ndAugust) in his insightful Brexit blog:
The endless speculation about what will happen next is understandable, but pretty much pointless. There’s really no way of assigning meaningful probabilities to a situation with so many moving parts and doing so is an attempt to impose rationality on what is no longer, if it ever was, a rational process.
Equally, it is impossible to decode what Johnson is really intending to do, what his strategy is, whether he is bluffing, or preparing a U-turn, or planning a pre-Brexit election. He may well not know himself.
In the last three years since the referendum, many things have been predicted with great confidence by respected commentators yet haven’t happened, for example:
– In the 2017 election campaign most thought that Theresa May would increase her majority.
– In the run up to the deadline of 29thMarch this year many thought that Brexit would go ahead at least by May or June with or without a deal. Politicians and the country couldn’t countenance participating in the EU Parliament elections.
– After Johnson resigned as foreign secretary in June 2018 many saw him as a spent force.
– Earlier this year, many ‘realists’ (including myself at times) thought that some version of Theresa May’s deal would eventually get through Parliament.
Some of us like to speculate on what might happen – it’s natural and can be fun. But we should be cautious about firm predictions. Politics, like life, is too uncertain. We should treat the predictions as warnings, not as near certainties. Let’s not get locked into defeatist mindsets.