Contrary to popular opinion, Boris Johnson isn’t aiming for a no deal Brexit, though he is willing to take us through one if that’s the only way of getting the UK out of the EU (and keep himself in Number 10).
His apparent strategy is to use brinkmanship in the negotiations to extract a de facto concession from the EU – Britain leaves without a deal, but with 'emergency' transitionary arrangements that prevent an economic shock or a hard border in Ireland, paving the way for a general election to build a Tory government with a proper majority.
Europe, in this scenario, gets to avoid the full economic blow of a no deal without appearing to throw the Republic of Ireland under a bus, which is how abandoning the backstop in a renegotiated withdrawal agreement would be seen.
So the most straightforward way we’ll see a no deal is if Johnson succeeds, only it wouldn’t be a no deal in the way we’ve all been talking about for years, but rather a sleight of hand designed to defuse tensions by transferring the Irish border question from the withdrawal negotiations to the future relationship negotiations.
The PM’s plan could be scuppered however, most obviously by the EU refusing to play ball, suggesting that a no-deal-plus-seamless-transition offers inadequate protection for Ireland, but this won't be apparent until very late on in the proceedings.
The plan’s success also depends on pragmatic, economically responsible Tory remainers like Philip Hammond and David Gauke getting on board from the back benches, so keep a close eye on how they respond to Johnson’s plan as it emerges, as well as on Labour leavers who supported or abstained over May’s deal.
If Johnson can’t get concessions from the EU or a hostile House of Commons, then he’ll likely switch to pursuing no deal actively, as the only way to bring about Brexit and as a means of consolidating his hold on the wider leave vote.
No deal could then occur in the following ways.
Johnson calls a general election and wins. Though the most likely result of this would be another hung Parliament with a remain consensus, electoral politics is remarkably volatile and unpredictable right now. The key advantage Johnson would have is that the remain vote is badly split across Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and even the Greens, Plaid and Change UK.
It’s true that the leave vote would likely be smaller because moderate leavers might have a change of heart in the circumstances, and that it’s split between the Tories and the Brexit party. But don’t rule out either an electoral pact with Farage or the possibility that leave voters would rally round Johnson (backed as he is by Vote Leave mastermind Dominic Cummings). So keep a close eye on the polls.
A "People’s Vote" backfires. If Johnson called another referendum to break the impasse, on a no deal or no Brexit basis, don’t assume remain would win. It would be very easy to position no deal as a bitter necessity in the face of arrogance and intransigence from an out-of-touch Westminster elite and a spiteful, uncaring EU.
A constitutional crisis breaks the system. Proroguing Parliament to prevent it from changing the Brexit date is a gamble the PM could try, though if it fails he’ll be left short of time and in an ugly constitutional position with unknown consequences.
A lot depends on interpretation of obscure Parliamentary procedures and precedents (which is why Johnson was smart to appoint Jacob Rees-Mogg Leader of the House), for example with some arch-remainers suggesting the Commons use a humble petition to force the Queen to ask for an extension, contradicting the advice she'll receive from the Prime Minister.
If our unwritten constitution unravels in this nasty mess, it becomes very hard to say whether the government could or couldn’t force a no deal through.
In short, it’s all very uncertain, and while the betting markets are saying there’s only a 29 per cent chance of a no deal this year, it remains anyone’s guess, and it would amaze me if the next 100 days didn’t throw up some more surprises.
Image credit: Travis Saylor/Pexels