Tuesday 15 October 2019

Andrew Hammond: 'Johnson adds uncertainty to the mix as UK craves clarity'

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives to visit military personnel on Salisbury plain training area in England on Thursday. Photo: Ben Stansall/Pool via Reuters
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives to visit military personnel on Salisbury plain training area in England on Thursday. Photo: Ben Stansall/Pool via Reuters

Andrew Hammond

The UK Supreme Court will early next week deliver its verdict on whether Boris Johnson's suspension of Parliament is legal, or not. Yet this verdict is only one of multiple key hinge points in the coming weeks as his premiership injects further uncertainty with the range of plausible political outcomes potentially only growing.

This autumn will witness further political drama including the Queen's Speech on October 14, and the EU Council meeting on October 17-18, which may determine whether or not the UK leaves the EU later that month, with or without a deal. Collectively, these developments will help determine the nation's medium to long-term political future with a general election potentially on the horizon too.

One way of navigating the tumult is by looking through the lens of four key scenarios. These different futures are constructed by using two main variables: whether the political leadership of the country will remain a Conservative-led administration, or one of a different stripe. And also whether the UK leaves the EU, in 2019 or the 2020s, and if this is via a withdrawal agreement or no deal.

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Using this framework, scenario one would see the combination of a no-deal Brexit and the continuity of a Conservative-led administration, albeit not necessarily under the leadership of Boris Johnson. While Johnson has said the UK must leave the EU on October 31, it is also possible that such a no-deal outcome comes later than this arbitrary deadline.

The reason why postponement of the UK's potential withdrawal beyond next month is a strong possibility is partly because of the legislation passed in Parliament earlier this month that requires him to seek an extension unless he can secure a revised Brexit withdrawal deal by October 18 that can command the confidence of the House of Commons and Lords. It is plausible he may choose to submit his resignation 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 efforts to find a revised withdrawal agreement that could be passed by Parliament. Yet, if no such breakthrough is forthcoming, it is increasingly possible that no deal could become the default option for the EU if one or both sides conclude that the outer limits of negotiation have been reached. It is in also in this scenario, of a no-deal Brexit and Conservative administration, that the future risks to the territorial integrity of the UK may be greatest in the 2020s. For instance, the Tories under Boris Johnson are becoming increasingly unpopular in Scotland which, with a second independence referendum possible, could fuel separatist sentiment.

By contrast, scenario two would see a no-deal exit under a non-Conservative administration - most likely Labour-led or a potential time-limited government of national unity. Because of the strong preference of opposition parties against no deal, this scenario is less likely than scenario one, but remains a possibility if UK relations with the EU27 break down.

Whether or not there is a general election in 2019, the reason why the Tories could lose power in the coming weeks is that Johnson has no parliamentary majority, even with his DUP partner. Should he resign before or after October 31, or fall to a vote of confidence, a non-Conservative administration may be formed, potentially followed relatively swiftly by a general election if a significant Brexit extension is secured into 2020.

Scenario three would also see a non-Conservative administration in power, but this time with the delivery of a Brexit deal, and/or referendum. This appears a more plausible scenario than two because opposition politicians from the largest parties favour either a softer EU exit, or remaining in the EU.

Scenario three could come about not just via Johnson resigning, or losing a no-confidence vote, but also potentially through a general election. It is in this scenario there is perhaps the greatest likelihood of the UK remaining in the EU, through a referendum, or possibly revocation of Article 50.

Scenario four, which would see the combination of a Tory administration and revised EU withdrawal deal, is widely seen as increasingly unlikely, but cannot be completely dismissed. A key question in this potential future 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 criticised agreement through Parliament. If so, the vexed first stage of Brexit would conclude and the UK would begin a transition period. In this future, it is likely a general election would soon follow with the prime minister of the day seeking to capitalise on his or her perceived success with Brussels.

Taken overall, Johnson's prime ministership has injected new uncertainty into UK politics and the range of plausible outcomes for the nation's future governance may only be growing. This is why scenarios can help decision-makers in public and private sectors anticipate and navigate the spectrum of potential futures on the horizon at what is a pivotal time in UK history.

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

Irish Independent

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