I’m going to do something this morning I’ve rarely done before. I’m going to stick my neck out and make a prediction. Of course, I might end up horribly wrong but my instinct tells me I could turn out to be right.
Even though the European Union has endorsed Britain’s divorce terms, I don’t believe Brexit is going to happen. My hunch is that Britain is, almost inexorably, heading towards a second referendum, which will pave the way for it to continue in the EU. This is not, of course, an automatic or assured outcome and you have to go through several hoops before you get to it. But we’re moving in that direction. So let me sketch out the likely process.
Later this month, the Brexit deal will be voted on in the House of Commons. This will happen before the British Parliament recesses for Christmas. No one doubts the deal will be defeated. According to the Telegraph, “at least 100” Conservative MPs will vote against it. So too will the vast majority of Labour MPs (30, it’s said, could end up supporting May), the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalists and, most importantly, the Democratic Unionist Party, Theresa May’s critical allies without whom she doesn’t have a majority in Parliament. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, has even said she would rather see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street than vote for the deal.
With the Brexit deal defeated, Britain will face the prospect of crashing out of the European Union without a deal. Both the Bank of England and the British Treasury say that could be catastrophic. With the exception of a few hardline Brexiteers, no one wants to fall off the precipice as it were. At all costs, the House of Commons will want to avert this.
The critical question is how? Theoretically, there are four possibilities. First, if the deal is only narrowly defeated, May might choose to try her luck in a second Commons vote in the new year. With the deadline date of March 29 looming, MPs may vote differently in January or February compared to December. But that’s probably a forlorn hope.
If, however, she suffers a large defeat, as seems likely, she might go back to the EU for better terms. But Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has made it clear this is the only deal possible. Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, is more explicit. The deal will not be renegotiated, which means the controversial Irish border ‘backstop’ cannot be amended.
So what then? With her preferred deal rejected by the Commons and March 29, the date for Britain’s exit, drawing ever closer, Theresa May will have only two options left and both involve going back to the people – a general election or a second referendum.
Now, no one believes the Tories will win an election. Although Labour is trailing slightly in the polls, an election is likely to reverse that and catapult Corbyn into office. Even if this cannot be guaranteed, it’s too great a risk to take. After her surprise election in 2017, when she expected to win but ended up losing her majority, I doubt if May will want to gamble again.
That leaves a second referendum as the only option. For what they’re worth, the most recent polls suggest there’s a small majority not just in favour of holding another referendum but also in favour of remaining in the European Union.
And this, I venture to suggest, is what will happen.