The Conservative Party Autumn Conference is meeting this week in Manchester after last Tuesday’s sensational UK Supreme Court verdict that Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament was unlawful. Yet, this latest phase of Brexit-related drama, which could yet result in the collapse of Johnson’s government, is only one of multiple key hinge points in coming weeks, which could see ever intensified UK uncertainty with the range of political outcomes potentially only growing.
Amid the sea of apparent unpredictability, 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 (most likely Labour-led). And also whether or not the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, in 2019 or the 2020s, and if this is via a withdrawal agreement or no-deal.
Using this framework, scenario 1 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.
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.
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, in law, 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 that he may choose to submit his resignation rather than suffer the political embarrassment of asking the EU for another extension.
Risks to territorial integrity
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 (just as much a UK Government).
It is 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 2 would see a no-deal exit under a non-Conservative administration — most likely Labour-led or a potential temporary government of national unity. Because of the strong preference of opposition parties against a no-deal departure, this scenario is less likely than scenario 1, but remains a possibility if UK relations with the EU-27 break down.
Scenario 3 would also see a non-Conservative administration in power, but this time with the delivery of a Brexit deal, and/ or referendum. On the face of it, this appears a more plausible scenario than 2 because opposition politicians from the largest parties favour either a softer EU exit, or remaining in the European Union.
Scenario 3 could come about not just via Johnson resigning, or losing a no-confidence vote, but also potentially through a general election, too. It is in this scenario that there is perhaps the greatest likelihood of the UK remaining in the EU, through a referendum, or possibly revocation of Article 50.
Scenario 4, 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-then prime minister 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 that an election would soon follow with the prime minister of the day seeking to capitalise on his or her perceived success with Brussels.
Take overall, the Supreme Court decision 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 to 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.