June 21, 2019
No appetite for extension
The biggest misconception among commentators in the UK is that the EU will in the end agree to a Brexit extension. The EU surely does not want to be blamed for a hard Brexit. But we ask: blamed by whom? Leo Varadkar did a really good job yesterday to instil at least some doubt into this complacent attitude. He said the mood in the Council was shifting against an extension - a judgement we can confirm. There is no unanimity on this point, but unanimity is not required. Any member can veto an extension. We are not saying that anyone will do this. Emmanuel Macron and Pedro Sánchez are not threatening a veto. But they are winning the argument.
Also consider that EU leaders do not really care whether UK newspapers blame them for a hard Brexit. What matters to them is whether their own electorates will. Why on Earth should they do this? It was the UK that triggered Art. 50. It was the House of Commons that failed to ratify the withdrawal agreement. We yield to no one in our criticism of the EU and its policies. But not even we would go the extreme of blaming the EU for a no-deal Brexit.
We think the notion of an automatic Brexit extension is probably the biggest Brexit delusion of all. Another delusion is the presumption that Boris Johnson will necessarily ask for one. And that parliament can stop a no-deal Brexit - short of revocation or legislating for a second referendum.
Here is the universe of Brexit choice the next PM will confront:
- elections before end-October;
- elections after end-October, either in December or in 2020;
- second referendum;
- no-deal Brexit without elections;
- unilateral revocation by the House of Commons;
- ratification of the existing withdrawal agreement with a new political declaration;
- a negotiated change in the withdrawal agreement, back to the original version of a Northern Ireland-only backstop.
We are excluding all the unicorn options from this list - like the fabled Malthouse compromise. If we go through the list from the perspective of Boris Johnson as prime minister, an early Brexit-delivery election appears the best out of a series of risky options. If he were to present a withdrawal deal to the UK parliament, there is a good chance they would reject it once again, given the narrow majorities. He would end up at exactly the same point where Theresa May ended up. A second referendum would have the same political effect.
We are aware, of course, that a newly-appointed prime minister does not want to go down as the PM with the shortest term of office in history. Early elections are risky. But there are no good alternatives. Johnson has a reasonable chance of winning an election on a platform to commit to Brexit before October - or at year-end perhaps - deal or no deal. This is the only scenario in which the Tories could come out of this with their head not just held high, but still attached to their bodies. In all other scenarios they face extinction at the hands of Nigel Farage. The point is not whether Farage could win an election outright. This is theoretically possible but unlikely. But his potential to damage the Tories is massive. The national election polls currently showing Farage in the lead really have an impact on the views of Tory MPs.
Johnson yesterday predictably won the first leg of the leadership race, and even managed to get his favourite opponent, Jeremy Hunt, in the final run-off. The colourless Hunt stands no chance. His position on Brexit is all over the place. And remember that, whenever Tory politicians go on hustings in the shires, they discover that Brexit is the only issue that matters.