Few would have thought Rory McIlroy would miss the cut at Royal Portrush of all places, but surprises can come where they are least expected. So it is possible that while Boris Johnson can be expected to become our next prime minister, he could yet – surprisingly – deliver a Brexit by 31st October when all his opponents in other parties and critics in his own say it is not possible.
The trick may yet be that entirely separate field of battle – defining what actually a true Brexit means – for it is in redefining Brexit that Johnson has his best chance of winning parliamentary approval. By using his optimistic and positive way with words that Jeremy Hunt comes nowhere close to, Johnson might just sweet-talk Parliament into accepting a bastardised version of May’s appalling Withdrawal Agreement before Halloween.
Much of Johnson’s focus on delivering Brexit has been to rule out acceptance of the Irish backstop – the legal trap that ensures the UK does not diverge from EU laws, standards and trading arrangements. The possibility of the EU finding a new form of words that would allow Johnson to claim the backstop will in time be removed – and thus put a zombie-version of May’s proposed treaty to a parliamentary vote – should not be discounted. It would still sell-out the fishermen, hand over our military forces to the EU Army and keep us liable for hundreds of billions of contingent liabilities, but it would be Boris’s Brexit.
Overnight, Tory MPs walking through the “aye” lobbies would become the living dead if they fell for such a ruse. Come a future election the public could be expected to put such soulless creatures out of their misery by handing their seats over to real Brexit supporters.
The EU, including the new President-elect of the Commission, protests it will not reopen negotiations, a public stance that is to be expected. This might change because the commercial advantages for the EU make it sensible to, but so far the political imperative of demonstrating any country leaving the EU will be punished has triumphed over economic rationality.
Faced with an intransigent EU and as out of touch Commons Johnson could yet find asking the British people for a mandate through an early general election his preferred route. It would be a fine and risky calculation to make that requires other options to be considered.
The two alternatives to calling for an early general election that might secure him a working majority are, firstly, to find parliamentary manoeuvres that ensure the UK leaves the EU with the many managed side-deals on aviation, road haulage and citizenship etc – or, secondly, the EU recognises its own economic interest and is willing to accept a GATT XXIV accord that continues the current trade arrangements while a Free Trade Agreement is thrashed-out.
The first alternative is possible because the UK’s legal position by default is that if the Prime Minister does not ask for an extension of the current Article 50 membership period we will automatically leave at 11.00pm on 31 October. Politically all Johnson has to do is survive in post without requesting an extension to achieve Brexit. If he is instructed by MPs to request a further extension it would require legislation to force him – or the threat of passing two consecutive motions of no-confidence in his government that would force a general election.
By making a vote of confidence a three-line whip Johnson could then replace any Tory MPs that rebelled by removing the party whip, thus denying them the possibility of being Conservative candidates. This ploy would not work against those Tory rebels that have said they will not seek re-election or are willing to risk Corbyn becoming prime minister rather than see Brexit become reality.
The second alternative is viable because the EU has already agreed favourable FTAs with more distant and less important trading partners of Japan, Canada and South Korea – and has struck a tentative deal with the South American Mercosur nations. The UK is a far larger market of greater importance – only political fear of a post-Brexit British success and political petulance has prevented a similar deal emerging.
Yet such has been the avalanche of rhetoric against Johnson, that any of those three outcomes – a faux-Brexit, holding out for the default or a GATT agreement – would be surprising were they to become reality.
Just as much a surprise would be Johnson’s Conservatives going into a General Election battle in some coalition with The Brexit Party. While it might appear attractive to saving Conservative electoral hopes (especially if the UK has not left the EU by 31 October) there really is very little in it for Nigel Farage and his new and expanding party. The most attractive constituencies for Brexit Party candidates are to be found where Labour remainer MPs hold strongly leave-voting constituencies. In such circumstances – predominantly in the North of England and much of the Midlands – being seen to be in cahoots with Johnson’s Tories will drive voters back to Labour, even Corbyn’s Labour.
Voters who are tired of Labour politicians taking them for granted want candidates who are fresh and optimistic without being encumbered by loyalties to class, race, religion or the other silos of grievance-fed identity politics. Such political tribalism has ensured Labour voters and their communities have been left behind without the real change that could release them to achieve their ambitions. The Brexit Party will not wish to give up such fertile ground where it can replace Labour like the SNP has done in Scotland.
I have no doubt that if Johnson wins, and it would be a surprise if he did not, then he shall hit the ground running with a flurry of activity through cabinet appointments, policy announcements and offers of talks with the EU and national leaders that demonstrate a willingness to deliver Brexit. Pulling off any of the possible routes to his party’s electoral salvation is not beyond him, but there are many traps ahead, not least those of his own making.
A gaffe-free premiership? A first week without something for his critics to seize on? Now that would be a surprise – but with the public so sick of the manner in which Theresa May conducted the Brexit debate the right tone, attitude and momentum means practically anything is politically possible for Johnson.
Brian Monteith MEP is Chief Whip of the Brexit Party