I am currently thinking about my preparation for CFG’s annual fundraising dinner. I’m reflecting that this will be potentially be the fourth time since the 2016 referendum that I will be talking about the kind of society we want to have and the role the social change sector can play in it without really knowing what the future relationship with the EU is likely to be!
Yesterday journalists hailed breaking news of a ‘deal’ and speculated on whether it will be passed this Saturday if at all. The general view seems to be that we are all so sick of the topic that a deal will pass and we can move on to better things. But whatever happens, including if the agreement between the EU and the UK government becomes a deal - accepted and signed off by parliament - this is just the end of the beginning not the beginning of the end! We have years of this topic ahead of us.
Recognising that offering my personal comments or guessing what will happen next remains a gamble I feel that I should update my earlier predictions and consider where we are now. As before this is my Brexit crystal ball gazing and not CFG policy! Having done so, so far, it seems cowardly to shy away at (possibly) the last hurdle and not set out where I think this may go.
Depending on what media outlets you follow Johnson’s either pulled off the impossible in securing meaningful changes, caved on all political fronts to largely repackage a deal thrice rejected by MPs, including him, or is currently trying the biggest sleight of hand in political history (aiming to ‘lose’, whilst blaming everyone else, and claiming victory).
I’ve said before, and I think it worth stressing again, in my view Johnson is not fighting an ideological battle to deliver Brexit. He is trying to engineer a situation that ensures he remains in power, deal, no deal or no Brexit. His game remains, in my view, to pile on significant pressure in both parliament and the EU in order to potentially secure a deal (if he has to) whilst strengthening the message that he alone has done everything he can to prevent the establishment from curtailing the ‘will of the people’.
That pressure has been ramped up significantly and on Saturday MPs will be presented with a choice between Johnson’s deal or no deal on the basis that the EU won’t agree to a further extension. I think this is a false narrative. I don’t think the EU will refuse an extension if parliament cannot agree to the deal - they won’t want to be the cause of the UK crashing out any more than Johnson wishes to be blamed.
Although Johnson claimed he would ‘rather die in a ditch’ than ask for the extension forced on him by the House, if he cannot get the deal over the line, an extension is exactly what he will seek. The numbers in the house are incredibly tight, even with rebels, like Oliver Letwin, saying they will support pretty much any deal. I would put money on the deal not passing because whilst the government may well be able to count on the support of the ERG (despite many of the hitherto ‘intolerable’ elements of May’s deal suddenly becoming palatable) it is probable that the DUP and the SNP will be walking through the lobby together to oppose it.
So where do we stand on the alternatives; Johnson being ‘forced’ into a revocation of Article 50 and/or the government collapsing, and/or a new referendum and/or a general election?
8 defeats in 8 votes may just embolden the House against the government sufficiently to bring it down. A caretaker government may still be the outcome. The MPs who are no longer standing at the next election are growing in number. They are immune from the electorate’s wrath which could flow from forcing through an abandonment of the Brexit result entirely. What have they got to lose?
Johnson will need to consider how this deal lands before calling an election – will the anger some hard line Brexiteers may feel as a result of, what they see as, selling them down the river in pursuit of a ‘BRINO’ (Brexit in name only) deal be significant enough to reignite the Brexit party? If so he won’t keep calling to go back to the people, via a general election. All but the hardest line Brexiteers in the House, if Article 50 is revoked, will wish to put sufficient blue water between now and going to the polls again. Renewed calls for a referendum will only succeed if the will of the people has sufficiently swayed - and that shows no sign of happening anytime soon. The population remains, as does the House, stubbornly divided.
So, as with every major Brexit announcement thus far, despite appearances - not much has changed! A deal is more likely but improbable. A no deal is unlikely but possible. Remaining is unpalatable but more credible. All is to play for. Who knows where this rollercoaster will end up?!
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