Endgame forecast

I had been planning to record some more observations on the Brexit process over the last couple of weeks, but to be honest I have almost entirely lost the will to write about it, since the stupidity of it all is just too depressing. However there is a sense that some sort of conclusion might be reached next week, so I guess I should try to think through the possible outcomes.

The first question will be settled next Tuesday, when MPs vote on Theresa May’s supposedly revised plan; unsurprisingly, the EU have not made any concessions, so the proposal will be essentially identical to the one that was roundly rejected in January. May’s only hope of success seems to rest on the hard-Leaver wing of her party losing their nerve and falling in behind her, out of fear that otherwise there might be no Brexit at all. This looks very unlikely, so firmly have the ERG and the DUP nailed their colours to the mast on the Irish backstop question, so, unless there is a major breakdown in Labour Party discipline, it seems inevitable that the deal will be blocked once again.

This will trigger another vote the following day, when Parliament will be asked if it wants to categorically rule out a no-deal exit, on the understanding that doing so will prompt the government to seek to delay the departure date. Opposition to no-deal does seem to be the one position that commands a majority, so this outcome looks rather more likely.

Of course an extension to article 50 would require the agreement of the EU, and this may not be forthcoming, unless there is some indication that the extra time will allow a compromise to emerge. There is no sign of such a consensus at the moment, and, despite the looming deadline, the opposing positions in the UK seem if anything to be hardening, so Brussels may well decide that it’s better to get the shock of Brexit over now, rather than dragging the uncertainty out any longer.

The only plausible way to break the impasse would seem to be another referendum. The Labour leadership have, belatedly, come out in support of this, though a significant section of the parliamentary party remains opposed. There is a plan that would see Labour allowing May’s deal to pass, on the condition that it is ratified by a popular vote. However this would raise the question of what should be the other option on the ballot; no-deal or no-Brexit? Perhaps both? Organising a vote would take time; a possible date for leaving would have to be put back months, which would then oblige the UK to participate in the European elections, a turn of events unlikely to calm passions. The referendum campaign itself would almost certainly be ugly, and divert political attention away from the actual running of the country. There is something to the argument that the original Brexit result has already been confirmed by the 2017 general election, and another plebiscite would only deepen popular alienation from the political process, fuelling reactionary populism. The “People’s Vote” option is far from a panacea, and the potential complications may render it unviable.

So, for the record, what do I predict is going to happen? I think that: the vote on Tuesday will go against the government by a large margin; the Commons will vote to rule out no-deal, but will be unable to agree on an alternative; Theresa May will half-heartedly ask the EU for more time; Brussels will refuse a short extension and May will decline to request a longer one; the clock will run down and the UK will crash out of the EU on the 29th of March 2019.

Where might I be wrong? If the vote on Tuesday is relatively close, May could try again the following week, and manage to cajole enough waverers to get it over the line. Alternatively, she could abandon the right of her party, and compromise with Labour on a soft-Brexit plan. There might turn out to be a majority in favour of a second referendum. The EU could to agree a short delay, and, chastened by the brush with disaster, our politicians may use the time to negotiate a sensible solution.

Or maybe I’ll wake up, and it will all turn out to have been nothing but a bad dream…

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