Brexit scenarios: Events, dear boy, events

Hermann Pretorius says the stakes could not be higher under new PM Boris Johnson

Brexit scenarios: Events, dear boy, events

24 July 2019

What a pleasant surprise: the unsurprising has happened in politics. Boris Johnson has roundly defeated his leadership opponent, incumbent Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, by a two to one margin, and after a decade of being the prime ministerial bridesmaid, the former Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary is now the bride. But, to be completely frank, as is the case with so many nuptials, questions might be asked over the chances of the coupling of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party “going long term”.

Over this newly constituted union, however, hangs the fracturing of another Union, and the stakes could not be higher as the next step in the Brexit process is undoubtedly the most vital first test of the new couple. Much has been made of Boris Johnson’s position on the issue, but careful analysis shows that events more than policy intentions will dictate the direction the Brexit negotiations are bound to take.

This next step in the Brexit process can realistically be one of six: a no-deal Brexit; a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement; an extension of Article 50; a revocation of Article 50; another referendum; or a general election. The path to a revocation of Article 50 (the triggering mechanism for exiting the EU) is the narrowest – so narrow as to be politically and constitutionally fanciful. The paths to another referendum or a general election are narrow, yet not untreadable.

The path to a no-deal Brexit is narrowed, not by constitutional considerations, but by the parliamentary arithmetic in the Commons. Though a no-deal Brexit remains “on the table”, it must be appreciated that the underlying composition of the House of Commons makes the acceptance of a no-deal unlikely. The extension of Article 50 and the successful renegotiation of important elements of the Withdrawal Agreement, therefore, offer the most realistic paths of manifestation.

Commons arithmetic

For any Brexit option to go forward through the House of Commons, the number of votes required stands in the region of 318. It must be appreciated that reaching such a threshold is no simple thing, due to the deep-seated factionalism on the EU question in UK politics. The Conservative Party is currently being held in office by the non-coalitional support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest Northern Irish party in the UK legislature. Taken together, these two parties make up 322 seats in a chamber of 650.

The permanent vacancy of other Northern Irish seats, makes the number of 322 a marginal majority against attempts to unseat the minority government. Were these 322 MPs to vote for any Brexit option collectively, passage of the chosen option would go ahead quite easily. However, the parliamentary caucus of the Conservative Party is by no means united on the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU.


While it can be accepted that all Tory MPs bar one or two can be relied on to support a Brexit deal, the same cannot be said for a no-deal scenario. Prominent Tory MPs have recently indicated strong opposition to a no-deal Brexit, and even a willingness to vote against the incumbent government in a confidence motion to prevent a no-deal Brexit. In early July, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond added his name to this list.

For the Chancellor to take such a position is significant. An assumption that other Tory MPs, likely numbering into double digits, would also be as vehement in their opposition to no-deal is a safe one to make, especially on the numbers provided by the Tory leadership election’s parliamentary rounds where Rory Stewart, the only candidate openly and irrevocably opposed to no-deal, garnered 19 votes as a minimum and 37 votes at a maximum. Were a UK government to pursue a no-deal policy, it is likely that the total tally of votes in favour might not amount to more than 312 in the event of a rebellion of at least 10 Tory MPs.

Were such ardent Labour Brexiteers as Kate Hoey and Stephen Hepburn to vote in favour of no-deal, and were they joined by the only Independent MP to vote in favour of no-deal in March 2019, Sylvia Hermon, the total number in favour of a no-deal reaches 315 – three crucial votes short of the nominally required 318. To assume that further Labour or other MPs might make up the shortfall would be at odds with available data.

No other Labour or Independent MPs voted in favour of a no-deal Brexit in March, and it would be unlikely that at least three had since changed their minds, especially when the much-feared spectre of a no-deal Brexit hangs even closer and more threateningly than it had on the previous occasion when parliamentary support for a no-deal Brexit came to a vote. In short: there are no other votes to get no-deal over the line.

Much might be made of a more recent vote of the Commons to “keep no-deal on the table”, yet the stark reality is that that vote was, firstly, not a motion actively in favour of a no-deal, and secondly, was only carried by 309 votes to 298. In both recent cases where a no-deal Brexit was put to the Commons as any type of option on a vote, the supportive motion failed to reach the minimum threshold of 318 for the passage of any form of Brexit. The UK opting for a no-deal Brexit is therefore unlikely.

A risk of a no-deal Brexit remains, however, due to the EU’s ability to refuse an extension of Article 50 beyond 31 October. Were a single member of the so-called EU 27 (the EU member states minus the UK) to refuse such an extension, the UK would be forced into a no-deal Brexit. But it is our contention that the EU economic situation is at this stage so fragile, that it is unlikely for any member of the EU 27 to incur on the EU the disruptive damage of a no-deal Brexit.

General election

Considering the complexity of gaining majority support for any form of Brexit in the Commons, it cannot be discounted that a two-thirds majority for a dissolution of Parliament and a general election is a possible way forward. But the dire state of both the Labour and Conservative Parties in recent opinion polls will give significant pause for the pursuit of such by the two main parties.

Extension of Article 50

Counting against the pursuit of an extension of Article 50 by the UK is the oft-repeated pledge by Boris Johnson during the Tory leadership campaign that he, the likely winner of the contest, will take the UK out of the EU on 31 October, come what may. As Churchillian as that sounds, it might very well not be in his gift to do so, as Parliament could force the government into an extension of Article 50 – as it has done before.

Were Johnson to indicate an unwillingness by his government to abide by the instructions of Parliament to seek another extension, this would trigger a motion of no confidence in the new government. Such a motion could fall either way for the Prime Minister and the government would therefore go to some lengths to avoid such a vote. Parliamentary opposition to a no-deal conversely assures parliamentary support for an extension of Article 50 in the absence of a Withdrawal Agreement that could gain majority support in the Commons. This makes an extension of Article 50, in the absence of an amended Withdrawal Agreement, a possible next step in the Brexit process.

Amended Withdrawal Agreement

By elimination of the more unlikely possibilities, we are left with the renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement as the most realistic way forward for Brexit. Here, possibilities for progress are readily apparent. The EU knows that no Withdrawal Agreement containing an unlimited Irish Backstop can possibly pass a Commons vote.

A time-limit on the Backstop is therefore a likely point of compromise to inch closer to Brexit finality. Correspondingly, technological monitoring, so-called “maximum facilitation” on the border between the Irish Republic and the UK, is an implementary overtone of a time-limited Backstop. It is our contention that this would be sufficient to garner enough votes in the Commons to pass, but, were Prime Minister Johnson to agree to only these concessions, his political capital would be severely affected within his own parliamentary caucus.

The MPs he would alienate by such concessions would be the backbone of his long-standing support in the Party. Minding this, Prime Minister Johnson is likely to pursue two further changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that would make it palatable, if not optimal, to Brexiteer MPs: first, the renegotiation of the role of the European Court of Justice in the arbitration mechanisms in the Agreement, and second, the partial or full suspension of the £39 billion financial settlement subject to successful negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement between the UK and the EU.

The achievement of these four concessions would offer the best possible terms for all involved parties in assuring the exit of the UK from the EU. The likelihood of its achievement or partial achievement must, therefore, be considered the likeliest outcome of the Brexit process.


If another Johnson is to be believed, the first rule of politics is to be able to count. The next step in the Brexit process essentially boils down to a question of achieving 50% +1 in the House of Commons for one of the six possibilities. All possibilities being considered, an extension of Article 50 and/or the negotiation of an amended Withdrawal Agreement are the only two that could realistically garner a majority in the Commons, and ensure long-delayed progress in the Brexit saga.

Hermann Pretorius is an analyst at the Center for Risk Analysis (CRA), a think tank in Johannesburg. This analysis was adapted from the CRA’s Strategic Intelligence Report which details trends and potential scenarios for the domestic and international political economy. This and other reports are available exclusively to CRA subscribers. For more information visit www.cra-sa.com