Next, a British General Election

12.07.19 Publication:

We will not know until July 24 whether Britain’s next prime minister will be Boris Johnson or
Jeremy Hunt, and we may not know until after the summer holidays how the new British
leader will choose to negotiate with the other 27 members of the European Union. But we
already know one thing with certainty, for Theresa May proved it thoroughly during her final
two years in 10 Downing Street: that it is impossible to pass any EU withdrawal agreement
through the current Westminster Parliament. Only a general election can change this.

So the key issue in Britain is not the identity of the new prime minister but rather the
date and circumstances of the general election that is necessary to break the country’s
political logjam. This matters to Italy and other EU countries because it means that the
range of potential outcomes is much wider than just a question of which of Britain’s past
two foreign secretaries – the blond clown-celebrity, Boris Johnson, or the safe but dull
former businessman, Jeremy Hunt – will be their interlocutor. A general election could send
Britain hurtling in all sorts of wild directions, if opinion polls are to be believed.

Both of the Conservative Party candidates insist that they will not press for an
election until after Brexit has happened. This means that we can be 95% sure that they are
both lying. For until there has been a general election, Brexit is impossible unless the new
government forces the country to crash out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement. And
it looks at present as if Parliament would be able to block such an occurrence.

The Parliamentary arithmetic that has prevailed since Mrs May’s disastrous general
election in June 2017 is what has trapped Britain in its present predicament. In that election,
the Conservatives lost their overall parliamentary majority. With the help of the pro-Brexit
Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland they now command a majority of just four
seats at Westminster. On August 1 st , that majority may well fall to three thanks to a by-
election in a Welsh constituency.

This means that any small group of Conservative rebels, whether pro- or anti-Brexit,
can defeat any proposal unless a prime minister succeeds in persuading a substantial
number of MPs from the opposition Labour Party to neutralise the rebels by voting with the
government. So if Mr Johnson or Mr Hunt really believe that they can succeed where Mrs
May failed and get their preferred EU withdrawal agreement ratified by the existing House
of Commons, they have to believe that they will be able to win sufficient support from
among their sworn enemies.

That is the British Tory paradox: whichever of the two men competing to be chosen
by 160,000 mainly elderly and right-wing party grassroots members will almost immediately
need to switch their attention to persuading at least 10 and probably 20 Labour MPs to
support them in Parliament over Brexit. Mr Johnson – and it looks overwhelmingly likely
that he will emerge as the winner on July 24 th – may be quite a persuasive person but for
him to win such Labour support would be an extraordinary achievement.

So it is better to assume that he will not succeed in doing so. The best assumption to
make is that he knows he will need to force a general election and then win an absolute
majority before he is able to “deliver Brexit”, to use the phrase preferred by his party colleagues. The right questions, therefore, must be how he intends to force such an election
and when.

There are three alternative scenarios. The first is that he calls a vote to dissolve
Parliament almost immediately, before he has had any meaningful new negotiation with the
European Commission or other European governments. This would likely produce a general
election in October, just ahead of the current October 31 st deadline set for Britain to ratify a
withdrawal agreement and then leave.

The trouble with this scenario is that the Conservatives are currently looking very
weak in opinion polls: only through an alliance with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party could they
hope to win a majority. Hence the second scenario is that the new prime minister takes a
little more time, so as to force a confrontation with the EU in the hope of winning votes
back from Mr Farage and being able to run a patriotic, nationalistic, anti-Brussels campaign.
The third scenario is even more confrontational: that Prime Minister Johnson
demands to leave the EU without an agreement, does nothing to secure even a short
extension of the deadline, and so an election occurs after Parliament has voted to block this
manoeuvre in late October. It would thus be an election held amid a national, even
constitutional, crisis.

And what might the outcome be? Anything is possible, ranging between the victory
of a far-right, hard Brexit alliance between Johnson and Farage, and a victory for resurgent
anti-Brexit parties, including the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, Labour and the
Scottish Nationalist Party, dedicated to holding a second EU referendum.

As a former head of the MI6 spy service just said, Britain truly is going through a
political nervous breakdown.