Britain’s most unlucky Prime Minister since Ted Heath is still on her feet. Just. Theresa May won a stay of execution by saying she would give a timetable for her departure in early June, after she has brought her Brexit deal back to Parliament for a fourth attempt. Hardly anyone thinks it has a chance of passing. Some think it might not even get to the starting blocks, if the European elections this week go badly.
The talking, votes and deadlock have gone on for so long that it seems to have become the new normal. But in reality, the ground has been shifting very fast. Look at the signs.
First, the voters are twigging that the EU has given Britain a binary choice between a no-deal Brexit and a pretend Brexit (ie, one where new ways are found to tie Britain to the EU). Positions are crystallising rapidly, and are likely to be reflected in future voting.
Secondly, government MPs from the Conservative party are being forced to deal with the fact that their voters lean strongly towards the no-deal option.
Thirdly, the opposition Labour party seems to have made a critical decision to not support Mrs May’s pretend Brexit. For a party whose heart is not in Brexit, this offered a unique opportunity to saddle her with responsibility for a compromise which might let Labour claim membership of both teams. If so, the ambiguity is gone. Labour rejects a no-deal Brexit, can’t bring itself to support EU membership outright, so claims implausibly it will get a better deal from the EU. The voters are sceptical.
So what might all this lead to? While Theresa May seems willing to continue bringing her deal back to Parliament until the 2022 general election puts her out of her misery, a catastrophic failure in the European elections on Thursday could trigger the seemingly-inevitable leadership contest.
Conservative MPs are talking as if they have a choice. But there is strong pressure from party members and supporters for Boris Johnson, one of the few major figures seen to have consistently supported a clear Brexit and not tainted with support for the Government’s failed compromises.
Assuming he wins, he will need to act fast. A credible policy (perhaps the only one for a Conservative party fighting for its survival) could go like this. Offer to negotiate changes to Theresa May’s deal. Expect the EU to continue to reject any change. Prepare and move to a no-deal Brexit (say on 31 October when the current extension expires).
Expect grand political turmoil. He will have to skate through a fractured Parliament. His razor thin majority may evaporate as more EU-supporting Conservative MPs withhold support or defect. He will need to use and obstruct procedural tricks and unconventional alliances.
But once the path is set, it may be hard to stop him. The EU has promised solemnly to evict the UK at the end of October and changing it’s mind would rank as a monumental deception. It would also require MPs elected on a Brexit ticket to vote down a government forging ahead with the only practical (if extreme) option.
Indeed, the only way to stop him might be a general election. And it would be one for which there are few recent historical precedents. The crucial difference is that it would be multi-party one – with at least eight (yes) realistic contenders for seats – in a first-past-the-post electoral system. A party with a third of the vote might get a landslide majority, which would be a striking demonstration of the main strength of the first-past-the-post system (also its main weakness, some would argue).
In simple terms, the parties would line up as follows:
- A bunch of parties (Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, Greens, Change UK) supporting full EU membership – no ifs, not many buts.
- A Labour party with an unpopular quasi-Marxist leadership offering more talks, a better deal with the EU and a ‘confirmatory ballot’ (whatever that might look like).
- A Conservative government of proven incompetence (but under new management) offering no-deal Brexit right now.
- A new and inexperienced Brexit party of speculative but likely incompetence also offering no-deal Brexit right now.
A man with a flair for the dramatic, like Mr Johnson, might just rate his chances in this sort of contest.