Johnson's Irish Knot

Johnson cutting the Irish knot (Alexander cutting the Gordion knot)**Image credit:** [Wikimedia](https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_cutting_the_Gordian_knot_by_Andre_Castaigne_(1898-1899).jpg#mw-jump-to-license)
Johnson cutting the Irish knot (Alexander cutting the Gordion knot)1

Just as it was the case for May, so it is for Johnson. Approaching the knot from behind doesn’t alter the ironic necessity of making one’s own contortions in order to decipher the Brexit puzzle. Johnson has already repeated May’s error by having drawn a red line, which is the definite departure from the European Union on the 31st of October. He does however have the benefit of having only one red line, as opposed to May’s many. Having accepted a no-deal scenario as palatable has opened up a much wider number of possibilities for a course of events going forward. I would argue the most likely course of events ends in a Brexit with a deal, most likely within the next 12 months. That is, that Johnson intends to use a sword to break the knot, a quick and aggressive way to resolve the impasse.

Flowchart of possible events
Flowchart of possible events

Firstly, it’s already been established that Johnson intends to pursue renegotiations with the EU. He will seek alterations to the current deal. The EU has already stated the unpalatability of substantive changes, but has offered cosmetic alterations to the political declaration. I believe with sufficient pressure from the UK, the two parties may meet in the middle and make some minor changes to the substance of the agreement, perhaps better rights for UK citizens in respect of Europe. But that doesn’t untie the Irish knot; the UK will still have to choose between a hard Irish border and a customs union, neither of which are palatable to a Commons majority.

Therefore any deal struck by Johnson will not satisfy the Commons. His deal may perform better and close the gap to a majority, but it will still fail, especially since there has been an effective role-reversal within the Conservative party. Remainers and moderate Brexiteers, having been evicted from Cabinet, now have nothing to lose in breaking with the party and voting against whatever deal Johnson puts to the parliament. What then is Johnson to do in the scenario where his deal fails?2

Talk about town is about suspending parliament. That’s made on the assumption that parliament would act unilaterally to extend the Brexit date should the 31st of October near with No Deal a prospect. This is based on the Commons having previously resolved against a No Deal in an indicative vote. The only way for Johnson to circumvent this and hold his promise of exiting on the deadline is to suspend parliament, which indeed he can do. It would however be subject to litigation in the UK Supreme Court, and may result in an injunction preventing Brexit. That doesn’t matter so much as it would mean the deadline had been pushed out not of Johnson’s volition, same goes if the Parliament resolves an extension unilaterally. Expect some nasty rhetoric directed at the Courts and/or the Commons.

Assuming either the Commons or the Supreme Court issue an extension or injunction, the date gets pushed out either way. This is the most likely event; I don’t expect Johnson to be able to force a No Deal purely with executive power. The next decision for Johnson is whether to wait out or to act in respect of the extension/injunction. Johnson has never been one to sit still, and the success of his premiership rests on resolving Brexit one way or another. He seems determined to crash through and has the carte blanche with which to do so and for that reason I say he will call an election or a second referendum, whichever is most likely to deliver some kind of Brexit. With Corbyn as his adversary, Johnson would most likely be returned with a hung or majority government, Labour staying in Opposition. This has the lowest net gain but also the lowest risk. He’s highly likely to win but it most likely puts him back where he started, fighting with the Commons. Which way a referendum would go is unclear and therefore high-risk, but it is also high-payoff for Johnson. Assuming he gets the Commons to “build-in” automatic approval for whatever the referendum result dispenses, it provides a swift means to deliver Brexit, assuming he wins the vote. Losing means the end of his premiership, making this extremely risky.

I don’t know Johnson and I don’t know how much he’s willing to gamble. I do judge however that he is able to see the course of events in front of him and that he considers ending up in a quagmire like May did to be the absolute worst case scenario and the one he will most likely try to avoid. For that reason alone I would say he takes the gamble on a referendum. I say that referendum, assuming it uses some kind of instant runoff voting, delivers a Brexit with a deal as its outcome.3 The Remainers would provide their runoff preferences to a Brexit Deal and these would combine with moderate Brexiteers to deliver a majority for a deal.

Can I commit 100% that this is the course of events that will occur? Definitely not. Brexit is still volatile, and in fact even more volatile than ever before. Johnson is unpredictable, the Commons and the general public are both bitterly divided and on a razor’s edge. However, on balance, the most likely outcome is Brexit with a deal before 12 months has passed.4 Whether the course of events I have outlined is the way we get there is less likely, but still in my view a reasonable projection to make given the current variables. My projection is further reinforced by immediately recent events such as Johnson’s ruling out an election and the decision to fund government advertising for a No Deal.5

All of that said, political junkies like myself are going to be fascinated to see the ultimate outcome. The British public is probably much less enthusiastic, or enthusiastic for very different reasons. Such is perhaps indicative of the social rupture that caused this political upheaval in the first place.


  1. Image credit: Wikimedia ↩︎

  2. His deal might not even make it to parliament if the ERG has serious objections due to lack of substantive changes, course of events continues in any case ↩︎

  3. I imagine a two-tier question: Brexit or Remain? Then in the event of Brexit, Deal or No Deal? ↩︎

  4. sufficient time needs to be allowed for a referendum ↩︎

  5. This will draw people into the Brexit camp in general in the event of a referendum. Leave, indeed, will have a big leg-up. ↩︎