Years ago, I read a piece of what-iffery by someone who is now a respected psephologist. It all started from the most modest premise: in the 1970 World Cup quarter finals, England’s goalkeeper Gordon Banks couldn’t play because of a terrible stomach bug. After his substitute played poorly, England lost the match and was knocked out. Not a big event in itself, but it happened three days before a general election, and that election turned out to be a surprise win for the opposition. The suggestion of the writer was that a well-timed World Cup victory might have been just enough to put history down a very different path.
Fast forward to 2018, and the parallel is striking. This time, we have the nation euphoric about having finally, finally won a penalty shootout, and a time in politics when the future is very, very uncertain. I can see someone else speculating in thirty years, what might have happened had Kane been sent on during England-Belgium, if he’d managed to win the match. England end up elsewhere in the draw, and find themselves knocked out in a surprise loss to Japan. Rather than ending the week with an optimistic sense that the best can always happen, we could have finished with a redoubled sense that England’s glories ended before we were born. And that difference could honestly change the future of the UK.
This seems to be the crunch week on Brexit. I’ve thought that before, and the government has kicked the can down the road – but now we’re out of road, and it really might be the moment at which the Tory party descends into civil war.
Politics for a long time has been on a knife edge; now people are pushing it down onto the blade.
On a surface, the news doesn’t seem that different from the past fifty weeks of Brexit discussions. The government is trying to figure out what it wants out of Brexit, and is putting forward some ideas that are not popular with some of their MPs. The hard Brexiteers under Jacob Rees-Mogg aren’t happy, but then they haven’t been happy with anything short of subsidised re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo and mandatory Rule Britannia for the under fives.
What’s special? Two things – time and trust.
On time, we haven’t got any. It’s been said for a long time that we don’t have enough time to prepare for a no-deal scenario. We may now have passed the point at which we have time to make any kind of deal at all. The ‘essay crisis’ model that the British side tends towards isn’t an option for the Brussels machine and its constitutional requirements for clearing a deal. Those in the know said we have until October, and the chances of sorting this out by then is now zero.
In a world where we have no long-term deal agreed, all of the beautiful options are reduced to two – do you crash out with absolutely no deal, or do you slip into the twilight of an endless transition period while you work out the tricky bits. In the past few weeks, the starkness of this choice has become apparent. And one side of the Tory party cannot accept one option; and another side cannot accept the other.
There’s also a sense that the PM has no one left who trusts her. It’s not surprising – trust in politics is about the exchange of political capital, and she hasn’t had any to spend since last year’s election. It was clear, after the reshuffle-that-wasn’t, that she hadn’t the authority to sack or move anyone, and the reason she was in office was primarily because no one wanted to go to the hassle of removing her. Such a situation isn’t compatible with negotiating the greatest rewriting of our system of government in a century.
You can go into exhaustive detail about who lost trust when, but the important thing is that no one has any left now. If you’re a remainer Tory, you feel betrayed by the shenanigans around the EU Withdrawal Bill; if you’re a hard Brexiteer you see so many compromises already made to the vision of a pure, free Britain capable of doing all the things that make you a fan of Brexit in the first place, and feel disinclined to make any more.
I don’t want to get caught up with who is right or wrong here, but it does look a little self-inflicted by the Brexiteers. Both of these problems would have been solved by a credible vision for how Brexit was going to work, rather than just why it’s important and how it’s going to be amazing. The fact that the Moggs and Davises of the world have never deigned to consider the nuts and bolts has meant that pretty much every practical decision that has been resolved has moved us back towards the status quo, and every decision where they’ve thrown a strop and prevented a decision being taken has seen us moved closer to the point where there’s no time to make a deal.
How it starts
These two factors are also leading to something miraculous and unheralded in British politics – Theresa May may be about to make a decision. It seems that her vision of Brexit may finally be laid out. Certainly there’s been a lot of chatter on the wires which would be consistent with preparing to do just that.
It’s a very soft Brexit indeed – softer than I had expected, and so soft I can see the tabloids talking about ‘Andrex Brexit’ once it’s fully explained. There is a transition period that runs on for a while, then another sort of transition period after that while we sort out all of the basic logistics that the public and business expect of a competent government. We stay in large parts of the single market, and potentially trade some of the more acceptable parts of free movement away (e.g. so people with jobs can move here, like they can in Norway). The ECJ will have a role in policing the process.
It’s an excellent model of Brexit – for anyone who didn’t want Brexit in the first place. And who can stomach the fact that it’s worse than the status quo on every measurable point. But it’s outright offensive to anyone who believes Brexit is the path to the Promised Land.
So where do we go from here?
If this is all accurate, the PM is throwing down the gauntlet to the Brexiteers. This crosses enough of their red lines to force a showdown. The remainers were in this position a few weeks ago, and didn’t take the party over the edge; now it’s the Brexiteers’ turn to choose between backing down or starting a leadership contest.
If I had to guess, they will go with number 2. If the PM’s position is what it has shaped up to be, they have lost Brexit. While the remainers are the type of people who would always judge whether something was important enough to do something so drastic, the Brexiteers lack that level of nuance. Also think they feel less shame about the idea of putting the party at risk, which was what seemed to stay the hand of many remainers. The backers of hard Brexit are the kind of people who like to remind you some ideas are worth dying for.
I think the PM has already taken this into her calculations. Enough people are pointing out that you need 48 MPs to trigger a leadership contest, but you need 158 to win such a contest. The Brexiteers can’t bring that kind of force to bear, if the remainers line up behind the PM. The best case scenario for her is that she wins the vote, and can then go on to implement her Brexit without further interruption.
However you then have two further questions:
- Has the PM’s support become so low that, even having won the competition, she would have no authority? This is what happened to John Major in 1995, and Major looked far stronger than May. If that happens, we’ll just have more of the shenanigans of the past two weeks.
- Do the truest Brexiteers march out of the Tory party altogether? Lose ten of them, and the government no longer has a majority in the Commons, and a general election is probably triggered.
The last one is potentially the scariest outcome for the middle-of-the-road Tories: a general election at short notice with Theresa May in charge could not end well (anyone who says the Tories are ahead 5 points in the polls should remember she had a 24 point lead before the last election). The one thing holding the Tory party together is the importance of keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of power – which in turn makes me think that the legendary men in grey suits may try and stop a Brexiteer walkout by encouraging Mrs May to give way to a compromise leader. Right now, that would be either a Gove-Javid duumvirate or some complete non-entity with a pro-Brexit record (no, I have no idea who that would be either).
And the thing that shapes each point along this path is not political science; it’s animal spirits. It’ll be down to psychology and the weighing up of chances, and gut instincts about what risks to take and what risks to leave unrealised. And that’s why something as seemingly unrelated as the ability of Gareth Southgate to exorcise his personal demons from Euro 96, or a chance meeting in a corridor, or the calibre of wine served at a party the night before a crucial conversation, might truthfully shift us from one future to another.