Johnson’s Brexit dilemma

Poor Boris Johnson. He’s finally got the job he’s hankered for the whole of his life, at the worst possible moment and in the most difficult of circumstances. With a hearing at the Supreme Court scheduled for this week to review his decision to prorogue Parliament for an extended period, and being ’empty podiumed’ by his opposite number in a country known mainly for corporate tax dodging, his premiership has got off to a terrible start. One might almost feel sorry for his current woes, were it not for the fact that they are entirely self-inflicted.

As things stand, Johnson has backed himself into a corner where getting Brexit through Parliament, with or without a deal, seems impossible for the following reasons:

  • A soft Brexit will enrage the ERG, who now form a bigger percentage of the party and, more importantly, the Cabinet.
  • A hard Brexit, including no deal, will unite the opposition parties against the government.
  • At this stage, the Liberal Democrats and SNP will probably vote against any form of Brexit.
  • Any deal involving the backstop or a border on Ireland or between Ireland and Great Britain will anger the ERG and the DUP.
  • Whilst Theresa May could count on support from some opposition MPs, Labour in particular seems united against Johnson.

Personally, I think a referendum is his best way out of the current mess, even though I don’t think another referendum is a particularly good idea for the country. Unlike other electoral questions, a referendum means only having to plan for two possible outcomes (I’m assuming ‘leave’ covers with or without a deal):

Leave wins: Johnson can justifiably claim that he now has a mandate for Brexit, as it has been endorsed by two referendums. With this he can probably get a majority for whatever deal he wants to bring back to the Commons, as it will be very difficult for Labour MPs to vote against it.

Remain wins: Johnson can say that Brexit was his choice, but he must of course respect the will of the people and they have changed their minds. All the contingency money that Hammond put aside to cushion the blow of Brexit can be released, alongside some eye-catching public infrastructure announcements.

In either case, having outsourced the answer to Brexit to the electorate, Johnson can then:

  1. Offer to reinstate the whip to the Conservative MPs who were expelled from the party over their opposition to no deal.
  2. Prepare an ambitious domestic programme for the remaining three years of this Parliament.

Even as a minority government, Johnson would effectively have a veto on the calling of an early general election, which requires a two thirds majority of MPs to vote in favour. The only way to get around this would be for Labour to request a vote of no confidence in the government, but with Brexit out of the way they may struggle to get the many independent MPs on board, for whom a general election effectively involves being sacked.

The other completely left-field option is for Johnson to do a complete u-turn and announce that he is in favour of staying within the EU for now. This would throw his party into disarray, but with the advantage of surprise he might just be able to command a majority for revoking the UK’s notification under Article 50, which can be done unilaterally. This would kill off Brexit and allow him to claim – perhaps unconvincingly to many, but when has that ever stopped a politician – that he doesn’t want to run the risk of damaging the economy and prefers to focus on domestic issues.

Johnson’s actions to date don’t suggest that he is prepared to back a referendum or Remain, but I don’t think we should underestimate his desire to avoid being the shortest-lived Prime Minister in modern times, as well as taking the blame for any Brexit disruption. He hasn’t got to where he is today without taking risks and swinging in the same direction as public opinion, so he may produce a last minute surprise for us all.

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