The future of Brexit and Britain just got more uncertain
(SCMP) – The verdict that the British PM’s suspension of Parliament was unlawful is just one hinge point in the coming weeks. Britain is facing risks of a no-deal Brexit, Scottish independence and more.
Britain’s House of Commons is due to meet again after the sensational Supreme Court verdict that Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament was unlawful. Yet, this verdict, which could yet result in the collapse of Johnson’s government, is only one of multiple hinge points in the coming weeks that could see intensified uncertainty.
There is not just the fallout from Tuesday’s court decision, but also the European Council meeting on October 17-18, for instance, which may finally determine whether Britain leaves the European Union later that month, with or without a deal. Collectively, these developments will help determine the nation’s medium- to long-term political future with a general election on the horizon, too.
Amid the sea of unpredictability, one way of navigating is by looking through the lens of four key scenarios. These different futures are constructed by using two main variables: whether the political leadership of the country will remain a Conservative-led administration, or one of a different stripe (most likely Labour-led); and, whether Britain leaves the EU, in 2019 or the 2020s, with an agreement or not.
Using this framework, scenario 1 would see the combination of a no-deal Brexit and the continuity of a Conservative-led administration, albeit not necessarily under Johnson. While Johnson has said Britain must leave the EU on October 31, it is possible such a no-deal outcome might come later than this arbitrary deadline.
A postponement of Brexit beyond next month is a strong possibility, partly because of the legislation passed in Parliament earlier this month that requires Johnson to seek a Brexit extension unless he secures a revised withdrawal deal that commands Parliament’s confidence by October 19. It is plausible that he might resign rather than suffer the political embarrassment of asking the EU for another extension.
In the event of a further extension, Johnson or another Conservative leader may continue efforts to find a revised withdrawal agreement. Yet, if no such breakthrough is achieved, it is increasingly possible “no-deal” could become the default option for the EU and Britain if one or both sides conclude that the outer limits of negotiation have been reached.
In this scenario, the risks to Britain’s territorial integrity may be greatest in the 2020s. For instance, the Tories under Johnson are becoming increasingly unpopular in Scotland which, with a second independence referendum possible, could fuel separatist sentiment.
By contrast, scenario 2 would see a no-deal exit under a non-Conservative administration – most likely Labour-led or a temporary government of national unity. Because of the strong preference of opposition parties against a no-deal departure, this scenario is less likely than scenario 1, but it remains a possibility if relations with the EU’s remaining 27 nations break down.
Whether there is a general election in 2019, the Tories could lose power in the coming weeks because Johnson has no parliamentary majority. Should he resign from office before or after October 31, or fall to a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, a non-Conservative administration may be formed, followed swiftly by a general election if a Brexit extension is secured into 2020.
Scenario 3 would also see a non-Conservative administration in power, but this time with a Brexit deal and/or referendum. On the face of it, this appears a more plausible scenario because opposition politicians from the largest parties favour either a softer Brexit, or remaining in the EU.
Scenario 3 could come about not just via Johnson resigning, or ousted with a no-confidence vote, but also through a general election. In this scenario, there is perhaps the greatest likelihood of Britain remaining in the EU, through a referendum or revocation of Article 50.
Scenario 4, which would see a Tory administration with a revised EU withdrawal deal, is widely seen as increasingly unlikely, but cannot be completely dismissed. A key question would be if the prime minister in this future could steer a modestly tweaked version of Theresa May’s widely criticised agreement through Parliament.
If so, the vexed first stage of Brexit would conclude and a transition would begin. In this future, an election could soon follow with the prime minister of the day seeking to capitalise on his or her perceived success with Brussels.
The Supreme Court’s decision has injected new uncertainty into British politics and the range of outcomes for the nation’s future governance may only be growing.