Thursday, 30 May 2019

The Canning Manoeuvre

What can one make of the EU elections this week? Brexiters will rejoice that the Brexit Party won most seats. Remainers are quick to point out that Remain parties combined received more votes than the Brexit Party and UKIP combined. Nigel Farage insists that the Tory votes should be added to his column, because they are a Leave party, and this gives Brexit a win. But as someone who believes that the only democratic means of overturning the 2016 referendum is through a further referendum, I'd argue that these results should be viewed  through a Brexit v Referendum prism, and that Labour votes should be added to the latter group, giving Peoples Vote supporters the win.

Politically, the UK is a mess. Whoever takes the job on from Theresa May will inherit a can of Brexit, well beyond its best before date, and bruised from repeated kicking down the road. There are, as I see it, six potential options open to the new PM. It's essentially a Brexit edition revolver and the game - appropriately enough, given the various suggestions of foreign interference - is Russian Roulette. What should worry the incoming PM most, is that there is the distinct possibility that every chamber contains a live round.

The Withdrawal Agreement

Tory leadership candidates are shouting rather loudly that they'd renegotiate the WA. Alas, the current extension that the government signed up to expressly excludes any possibility of doing so and it is difficult to see the EU even entertaining the idea. A new PM could, however, simply try what May tried and failed to do three times and try his or her luck. Obtain a non-binding letter of intent from the EU, rebrand the WA as 'bold', 'dashing', 'brave' or 'adventurous' and bring it before parliament a fourth time. I suspect that the ERG and DUP will brand it as 'bananas'. It ultimately cost May her job. But hey - you don't know till you try...

General Election

Current polling suggests that a Tory PM calling a General Election anytime soon would effectively be handing in their notice of resignation. But what boost will a leadership change provide the Tories as far as the polls are concerned? If there is a significant lift in the numbers, might the new leader chance his or her arm and seek a fresh mandate to force through the Brexit of his or her choice? Risky? Yes, very...

Second Referendum

It's poisonous to both parties. But of all the available options, it's the one most likely to break the deadlock. It's the most democratic option. Long term, it's probably the least damaging option for the Tories. But the resistance to it from within the Conservative party would be huge, and the risk of being deposed by a flurry of letters sent to the 1922 Committee is high.

No Deal

If the three options above are too upalatable, or fail, then the new leader would be expected by the hardcore Brexiter group within the party to go for a No Deal exit. He or she might try. But the most likely outcome would be a vote of no confidence in the government being put forward and passed by parliament, prompting a General Election. An election that, for the Tories, would come off the back of a humiliating defeat rather than a positive bump in the polls.


It's unthinkable, isn't it? The new Conservative Party leader taking to the podium outside No10 to announce that the government is to revoke Article 50? It remains an option, but one I could only envisage occurring in the event of a very serious international incident. Serious enough to put Brexit on a back burner for another day.

Further Extension

You know what options 1, 2 and 3 all need? Time. A further extension is the most logical course of action. The reality of the situation demands it. Alas, reality and the ERG are not happy bedfellows. The opposition would make the most of it. And for any candidate elected to the role of PM on the basis of a pledge of  'Deal or No Deal, we leave in October', his or her position becomes a little untenable. Does it not?

Theresa May pushed for a couple of those options, flirted with a couple more, but settled for two Article 50 extensions. I expect the next PM to do the same. But without the benefit of the originally specified two year period of negotiation at the point of triggering Article 50, without even the possibility of renegotiation and in a political environment that is becoming more hostile by the day. It takes a very special kind of fool to even contemplate taking the job on, to be frank. Each of those possible courses of action could well lead to an early exit from No 10 for the new PM.

One of the above must come to pass. On which should a betting man put his money? Extension, of course. But there's a more interesting bet to be had that brings the title of the post into the conversation. George Canning became the British Prime Minister in 1827, at a time when the Tory Party was split between moderates and ultras, with members frequently switching allegiances to other parties. Canning himself was a leading opponent of the Concert of Europe, proving that continental scepticism is not a new fangled idea.

But the most interesting detail about Canning's time in No 10 was the length of his term in office. He took the job in April but was out in August, just 119 days later. No PM has 'enjoyed' a shorter tenure in the top job. His departure was not prompted by a vote of no confidence by parliamentarians who questioned his ability to do the job. It was necessitated by Death, who decided he had no further confidence in Canning's ability to continue breathing, and took the appropriate action.

Canning's 119 day record could well be under threat. With a timeframe of just a few months between a June/July accession and the expiry of the Article 50 extension on October 31st, the new PM might find his days are numbered when they're still in double digits. What are the odds? I do not know. But I imagine they are rapidly decreasing.

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