As the coffin has finally nailed shut around Theresa May, a different door has opened.
Picture the scenario: the Brexit Party does as the pollsters predict and tops the European election vote, at the expense of Labour and the Conservatives. Whether the explicitly pro-remain parties collectively outhit Farage’s electoral heavyweight is irrelevant, the message to the ravaged Tory party will be clear: deliver Brexit or face annihilation.
Tory leadership elections are unpredictable – it’s possible the dominant leaver vote will be split, allowing two moderates to run off against one another on the member’s ballot – but let’s assume a hard Brexiter takes over as PM. Whoever it is, they’ll immediately face the same predicament that May did: there’s no mandate for any form of Brexit, remain or referendum, enough opposition to stop a no deal and a clock that’s ticking away in Brussels.
The new PM tries to renegotiate with the EU, which says no of course, and by earlier summer we’re into the endgame again, with no guarantee that the Europeans will let us off this time. Whoever runs our country at this point will do their damnedest to avoid being caught in May’s trap, so they will have to take more a decisive approach.
What could that be?
A soft Brexiter like Hunt or Gove could try muddling along with further extensions for as long as possible, or at least until the mood of the country shifts perceptibly or until the EU gets fed up. This could kick the can a long way down the road – perhaps until the next scheduled general election, in 2022, giving Parliament enough time to return to some kind of business as usual, not that any business would describe the sword of Damocles on a three-year timer as being usual.
A hard Brexiter, emboldened by the elections and making a Faustian pact with Farage, might take a big gamble and push for a second referendum, hoping no deal would win, but don’t hold your breath on that. They might also seek a delay and start-again renegotiation with the EU, but Brussels is unlikely to be receptive to a repeat of 2016-19.
This leaves the nuclear option. A bold enough, committed enough new strongman leader could adopt the stance of an absolutist monarch, end the Parliamentary sitting in the early autumn and refuse to let it sit again until after the October 31 deadline has passed, forcing a no deal by default.
If you think we’re divided now, imagine the aftermath to that – there could be rioting, a constitutional crisis, even a coup and a temporary end to our democracy. It would be madness, but it’s not impossible if we had the right (or wrong) PM.
The contempt for May is palpable right now, but in a year’s time we might wish she was still in Downing Street, plodding along as vote after vote is lost and minister after minister resigns. At least she tried, albeit far too late, to get some form of compromise. We can't take that spirit for granted in our next leader.
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