Benjy Goodwin examines what’s to come in 2019 for British politics.
The last few years in politics have been, to say the least, tumultuous. It seems that we finish every year remarking on how extraordinary it was, and begin the next saying it will be even more important than the last. 2019 is, I’m afraid, no exception. From Brexit to elections across the world, there is a lot to digest. This post will cover events in British politics. Tomorrow: the world.
Starting Monday 7th January, MPs are back in parliament and all the chaos resumes. It is hard to think back to the pre-Gatwick drone era, but remember: all hell was breaking lose. Theresa May had to pull the vote on her Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, and fight off a no confidence move from her backbenchers. The problems haven’t gone away, and Theresa May will be hoping that going back to their constituencies over Christmas will have made some of her MPs calm down a little.
In any case, it is all happening. As it stands, the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement is set to take place on either the 15th or the 16th of January. So will it pass? Of course, the answer is that no one can know. I’ve staked my reputation on her eventually passing the deal, so I will of course say that it will. The fact remains that many Tory MPs and the DUP, whose votes she relies on for her majority, have serious problems with the Irish backstop.
Now, May won’t be able to renegotiate the deal itself. The EU has repeatedly ruled this out and it is hard to see what actually could be changed. Instead, it is possible that she could get some sort of “add on” to the deal which would seek to clarify that the backstop could only be a temporary measure, and perhaps even float the possibility of the UK revoking its Withdrawal Agreement. The Government will be hoping for this, rather than some more piecemeal verbal assurances from EU heads of government and Jean-Claude Juncker; actions speak louder than words, especially in court. This “updated” agreement could be the final straw that sees it passing through the House of Commons. We know it’ll take a while; Downing Street sources have been suggesting that they will be prepared to hold multiple votes if the agreement is not initially passed. So, we really could be in for a chaotic few weeks.
Of course, if the agreement is not passed, a whole range of possibilities arise. If there is to be a “People’s Vote”, we will know in weeks rather than months. As I have set out before, though, it is not easy to see how we get there. Any second referendum would have to come via primary legislation – that is, Theresa May (or some other PM) would have to introduce a referendum bill. And though she is partial to a massive U-turn, this would be a rather risky one, and it would involve her doing something that she fundamentally disagrees with.
There could be a General Election (some people, terrifyingly, have predicted two). This would likely come about by Jeremy Corbyn bringing about a no confidence motion in the government and winning the backing of the DUP (or some sort of self-destructive Tory rebel group) to oust her. Winning this vote would not lead to an election immediately, as parliament would then have 14 days to try to form a new government, which could very plausibly be the Tories with a new leader. So, it is not without risk for Corbyn. May could, of course, bring forward a vote on a new election, which would require a two-thirds majority in the house. However, May’s previous experience at election time makes this seem highly unwise.
We could leave the EU with no deal. It is not entirely unfeasible for the House of Commons to spend enough time arguing that we get too close to March 29th to avert it. Many MPs have made serious arguments that “no deal” is a myth, and that there is no majority for this option. The problem is, of course, that no deal is the default scenario – it will automatically happen on March 29th unless it is replaced by something else. Many have called for Article 50 to be extended, but this is unlikely as only the government, not parliament, can do so. Futhermore, legislation would need to be passed, as the March 29th exit date is written into UK law. So no deal really could happen, in a sense, by accident. If it does, it is difficult to describe the levels of chaos that will occur as we tear up 45 years’ worth of arrangements with no replacement. Essentially, under most scenarios, there would be chaos. Remember, though, that Theresa May cannot be forced out by her MPs until December. They could make life a nightmare for her in an attempt to force her out, although some have been trying that for a year and a half now with no success, and she’s already survived that bout.
Should the withdrawal phase of Brexit go ahead as planned, Britain will leave the European Union on March 29th. At this point, the government will have a bit more time to try to address literally any other issue, which will make a pleasant change. Look out for the Spending Review, which will be the test of May’s declaration in October that “austerity is over”. Don’t expect the government to completely splash the cash, but they will want to mark at least a rhetorical break with the economics of the past eight years.
There is also speculation about a major cabinet reshuffle, in which we could see the backs of key figures such as Liam Fox and Phillip Hammond. As ever with Theresa May, every time such a shake-up has been briefed, it has been hot air, but it is likely that Theresa May will seek a re-evaluation of the usual suspects once we have left the European Union. One thing is for sure: British politics will remain as chaotic this year as it has been for the past few years. Whatever happens, the battle over Brexit will rage on, and the Tories will continue to struggle with their fragile majority.