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What will Brexit’s endgame look like?

Anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray (L) during a cross-party rally organized by the People's Vote, campaigning for a second EU referendum. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) - Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

GLEN O’HARA looks ahead to imagine how various scenarios might emerge, once the votes are in.

Everyone in politics is exhausted. After four UK-wide votes in just five years, as well as the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and elections to the Welsh assembly and Scottish parliament, the revolving door of our national life seems to have accelerated towards an Italian velocity.

Little wonder, then, that most politicos and voters crave at least some sort of closure – as prime minister Boris Johnson in fact correctively divines, with his clever slogan calling on us all to ‘get Brexit done’.

There’s no such thing as finality in politics, though, and as former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger once so memorably put it: “Every success is just an entry-ticket to more formidable problems.” Still less is there an easy exit when you’re looking at a four-dimensional game of political chess drawing in questions of national identity, the future of the political parties, complex trade negotiations and the future of the unitary state itself.

Let’s look at the most likely outcome right now: A small but working majority for Johnson’s Conservatives. Almost all of the opinion polling, statistical modelling and anecdote right now points in that direction, and although we must be enormously cautious about forecasting, given what happened in the last general election campaign, an election held tomorrow looks most likely to return the Tories to power.

That means that the government passes the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, perhaps with no amendments at all, given their renewed political authority and the more Eurosceptical character of the parliamentary Conservative Party, and proceeds to stage two – the tougher business of actually negotiating our way out of the European Union.

That would probably involve years of slogging away at arguments about the paperwork needed to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and the role of the joint committee overseeing arbitration, and row after row about the scale and scope of those regulations needed to make trade ‘fair’ as well as ‘free’.

The present Agreement imagines that the transition phase will be over by the end of 2020, as Michael Gove confirmed only recently. In reality, that deadline is so unrealistic that it is really just a useful fantasy to get the government through this election campaign. The trade talks are likely to stretch on for at least a year or two beyond that deadline – and perhaps more.

But let’s move on now to the next most likely scenario. Suppose that Johnson falls short of his quest to get to 320 seats and a working majority. A Labour recovery among the legions of ‘don’t knows’ showing up in the polls means that he is able to win only a handful of Labour seats. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party eat into Conservative support elsewhere. The Conservatives only get to 305, while Labour is on about 250. Now things get messy.

There would likely now be just enough MPs to block the Withdrawal Agreement, especially as the Democratic Unionists are furious about the new trade border in the Irish Sea and will certainly vote against it. But will there be enough opposition MPs to install a new prime minister? Experience this year suggests not.

The Lib Dems and the DUP seem unlikely to vote for Jeremy Corbyn to set up shop in Number 10. There are even a few Labour MPs with enough grave doubts about him to consider voting against such an outcome, though they are keeping their heads down for now. And while even the possibility of losing a new vote of confidence would swirl around Westminster, Labour may not make any move to pass a vote of no confidence – risking either a humiliating rebuff, or another immediate general election within 14 days if no new prime minister can be found.

It’s most likely in this scenario that Johnson will continue to bluff it out, before fighting a new election in the spring. Given that he will have been forced to ask for yet another extension, he may find such a campaign even more challenging than this one.

Then, lastly, there is another and entirely plausible outcome – Labour holds all its heartland seats as its voters come ‘home’, even picking off a few Tory seats in England and Wales such as Hastings and Vale of Glamorgan.

The Lib Dems tear into suburban Conservative majorities in the south and in their old fortresses in the south west, while the SNP take almost all of the blue seats in Scotland and even one or two independents make an appearance. Now, Labour has perhaps 270 or seats, and can govern with the say-so of the SNP, while the Conservatives are reduced to about the same number.

The outcome this time? A new referendum would be inevitable. Although the Lib Dems might abstain on making Corbyn prime minister, and there might be a number of Labour rebels voting against a new plebiscite, the House of Commons would contain more than enough pro-referendum MPs to make it happen.

It might take a while to set up, and Labour’s timetable would likely slip from early summer to autumn, but a second referendum would become inevitable.

Remain would start as favourite against a Labour deal, given the Leave voters who would be unhappy with how close the UK stayed to the EU in that version of Brexit. Remain does also have a small lead over Leave in the polls as they stand: But those two facts would be a very slender advantage to take into the polling booths.

This general election will not provide closure. It will open the way to years of trade negotiations (though the principles would mostly be settled). Or it will lead to a confused mess of a short-lived parliament and a new election, or a new referendum. The Brexit crisis will rumble on for some time yet.

Glen O’Hara is professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a string of books and articles about modern Britain. His most recent book is The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017)

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