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With PM Boris in a tight spot, here are four ways Brexit drama may play out

The Conservatives would want to pin a 'Brexit betrayal' onto someone other than themselves, and then try to defeat them in the inevitable election

Brexit
Illustration by Ajay Mohanty

Where does Brexit go next? What can Boris Johnson do? Only a fool would offer a prediction, but here are some possible paths.

Johnson gets a deal

Perhaps the prime minister agrees to a border in the Irish Sea. Perhaps the European Union cracks and offers some modifications to the parts of the deal struck by his predecessor, Theresa May, that address the contentious Irish border question.

But can he get it through Parliament? Maybe. To do so, he would need to dramatically reduce the number of “Spartans” -- the 28 pro-Brexit Conservatives who never voted for May’s deal. Two of them, Priti Patel and Theresa Villiers, are now in the cabinet, so they would probably get on board. To persuade the rest, Johnson could argue that he had got the best available deal, and that to reject it would mean breaking his pledge to get Britain out of the EU by October 31. Johnson argues that failure would mean extinction for the Tories, and would potentially put Brexit in jeopardy.

Johnson goes for no-deal

The government’s legal experts find a loophole in the law that was passed last week to force Johnson to seek an extension. Or Johnson simply ignores it, or somehow persuades the EU to reject his request for an extension. Britain leaves the EU without any agreement October 31, and Johnson, needing a majority in Parliament, seeks an election.

The outcome of that election would depend a lot on how a no-deal Brexit played out. If, as Johnson must hope, the disruption is minimal, he would be able to kill off Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and present himself as the man who had finally delivered. The goal would be to pick up seats in Brexit-supporting areas to offset those lost in places angry with what the government had done. The danger for Johnson would be that of an election fought against a backdrop of roads blocked by trucks queued outside ports, shortages of food and medicine, factory closures, and a humiliating British return to the EU’s negotiating table, asking for a deal after all.

Johnson backs down

He said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than delay Brexit beyond October 31. But unless he can get a deal, the law now says he must. Faced with the threat of mass resignations from his government if he refuses to obey the law, Johnson agrees to request an extension and, with it secured, asks Parliament for an election. This time, the opposition Labour Party agrees. Britain holds its first December election in nearly 100 years, with Johnson arguing that the people must take on Parliament.

Having failed to meet his “do-or-die” pledge to get Britain out of the EU, Johnson fights the election a weakened figure, with the Brexit Party telling voters that only Farage can get the job done. The pro-Brexit vote is split, and Labour is the largest party in Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn is on the point of becoming prime minister, with a commitment to another Brexit referendum.

Johnson resigns or is forced out

He can’t break the law, he can’t get round the law, but he won’t obey the law, so the prime minister announces he’s resigning. Or he tries to go for no-deal but loses a vote of confidence and is forced to quit. Who will succeed him?

The Conservatives would want to pin a “Brexit betrayal” onto someone other than themselves, and then try to defeat them in the inevitable election. Johnson might suggest to Queen Elizabeth II that she invite Corbyn to form a government, but he might have less support among members of Parliament than Johnson. Possibly better from Labour’s point of view would be to install someone else with a temporary mandate to seek a Brexit extension. Labour would block anyone else from their ranks, so a more neutral figure would be needed. 

Former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Ken Clarke is widely respected, and too old to pose much risk of trying to make his stay as prime minister a long one. Brexit is delayed, and an election is on, with Johnson seeking a mandate for no-deal, and Corbyn arguing for a second referendum. Even here Labour is split. The party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, will make a speech Wednesday arguing that the second Brexit referendum should come before the election.