Brexit? You couldn’t make it up. But let’s try …

Brexit? You couldn’t make it up. But let’s try …

The UK Supreme Court will deliver its verdict this week on whether Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament is lawful, but this is only one of many imminent key hinge points as his premiership injects further uncertainty, with the range of possible political outcomes growing. 

There will be further political drama next month, including the Queen’s Speech on Oct. 14 and the EU Council meeting a few days later, which may determine whether the UK leaves the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a deal. Collectively, these developments will determine the nation’s medium to long term political future, with a general election on the horizon too.

One way to navigate this sea of unpredictability is by looking through the lens of four key scenarios, constructed by using two main variables: The survival of the Conservative administration, or its replacement, probably by a Labour-led government; and whether the UK leaves the EU in 2019 or the 2020s, and if this is via a withdrawal agreement or without a deal.  

Scenario 1 combines a no-deal Brexit and a Conservative administration, although not necessarily led by Johnson. He has said the UK must leave the EU on Oct. 31, but a no-deal outcome could come later than this arbitrary deadline. This is partly because of a law passed this month that requires Johnson to seek an extension of the Brexit days unless he can secure a revised withdrawal deal by Oct. 18 that commands the confidence of Parliament.  He may choose to resign rather than suffer the political embarrassment of asking the EU for another extension. 

In the event of a further extension, Johnson or another Conservative leader may continue to seek a withdrawal agreement. If no such breakthrough is forthcoming, no-deal could become the default option for both the EU and the UK if one or both conclude that the limits of negotiation have been reached.  

The latest developments in UK politics will determine the nation’s medium to long term political future, with a general election on the horizon too.

Andrew Hammond

It is also in this scenario that the risks to the territorial integrity of the UK may be greatest. The Tories under Johnson are increasingly unpopular in Scotland, which, with a second independence referendum possible, could fuel separatist sentiment.    

Scenario 2 is a no-deal exit under a Labour-led administration or a temporary coalition government. Other parties are strongly opposed to a no-deal departure, so this is less likely than Scenario 1, but remains a possibility if UK relations with the EU break down.   

With or without a general election in 2019, the Tories could lose power because Johnson has no parliamentary majority, even with his Democratic Unionist Party partners.  Should he resign or lose a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, a non-Conservative administration may be formed, perhaps followed swiftly by a general election if a significant Brexit extension is secured into 2020. 

Scenario 3 would be a non-Conservative administration but also a Brexit deal, and/or a further referendum.  On the face of it, this appears more plausible than Scenario 2 because opposition politicians from the largest parties favor either a softer exit or remaining in the EU. It is in this scenario that there is the greatest likelihood of the UK remaining in the EU, through a referendum, or possibly revocation of Article 50.

Scenario 4, a Tory administration and revised EU withdrawal deal, is widely seen as unlikely, but cannot be dismissed.  A key question would be if the prime minister at the time could steer what may well be only a modestly tweaked version of Theresa May’s widely criticized withdrawal agreement through Parliament.

If so, the vexed first stage of Brexit would conclude and the UK would begin a transition period. A general election would soon follow with the prime minister of the day seeking to capitalise on their perceived success with Brussels.      

The range of plausible outcomes for the nation’s future governance will only grow. That is why scenarios can help decision-makers in public and private sectors anticipate and navigate the spectrum of potential futures at a pivotal time in UK history.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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