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June 25, 2019

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Why the parliamentary timetable will play into the hands of Johnson

The girlfriend affair has predictably blown over, and we are mercifully back to the real issues. The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuensberg, elicited two interesting statements from her interview last night with Boris Johnson, both implausible at first sight: that once he becomes prime minister, he believes the EU would be ready to re-negotiate. And if not, the UK parliament would support a no-deal Brexit.

It is easy to dismiss such bold claims out of hand, just as easy as it is for him to make them. The EU has tied itself to a refusal to re-negotiate. We don’t think this is a bluff. And parliamentary majorities are what they are.

But beware of political dynamics - and of political timetables.

One thing we simply do not know is what the EU will do when confronted with the real possibility of a no-deal. That hasn’t happened yet. It is one thing to say that you don’t renegotiate under a hypothetical scenario, another thing is to stick it out and actually let it happen. EU leaders might want to consider what could happen if no-deal isn’t the disaster everybody has been predicting. Could that not encourage eurosceptics elsewhere? For the EU, no-deal Brexit has worked extremely well as a scare story. But do we really want to find out and create facts? 

Also consider the timing. It is quite possible that the EU top jobs debate may not have been resolved by early October. An outgoing European Commission and an otherwise preoccupied European Council would have to deal with a no-deal Brexit.

And now consider the UK political timetable: the results of the Tory leadership elections are due on July 22. We assume the new prime minister will take office on July 23 or 24. The UK government yesterday set July 25 as the official start of the parliamentary holidays. The Labour Party still wants to squeeze in a vote of no-confidence before. We think this is unlikely to happen, and if it is, it is unlikely to succeed. Tory MPs will want to give Johnson an opportunity to renegotiate. 

So the new prime minister will enjoy six parliament-free weeks before having to make a positive decision on Brexit. Can he entice the EU to renegotiate on the substance of the treaty? Or will he be content with a cosmetic change? Will he really endorse a no-deal Brexit when he realises that none of the above are feasible? 

We would urge readers to accept that the answers to some of these questions are more open than they appear. Six weeks can be a long time in politics, especially under a new leader.

What is not going to change, of course, are the parliamentary majorities. The Tories and the DUP have a majority of three, soon possibly down two, after a by-election in Wales. 

Framing the question as deal vs no deal will only work if he gets his entire party to support the deal - and he will need to resort to extreme pressure to do so. If the Tories unite, and the choice is put as deal-vs-no-deal we would assume that there are enough Labour rebels to support it. 

What about no-deal? We believe that Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve are ready to sacrifice their political careers on a matter of principle. The House of Commons could vote to revoke Brexit or initiate legislation for a second referendum. But in doing so it would probably trigger an election, in which MPs would have to justify their position before their voters immediately afterwards. 

Our other stories

We also have stories on the political implosion of the Five Star Movement; on what’s behind the dispute about Weber; on why Spain is not blocking the euro budget; on the Greek elections and whether ND can get a clear majority; on the ECB’s ruling against the Polish government; and on the QE carry trade.

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