Hear me out: after the election, Johnson could pivot to a second referendum

This is a scenario as likely as any other 

November 13, 2019
Johnson ahead of the 2016 referendum. Campaigning is his natural mode. Photo:  Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment
Johnson ahead of the 2016 referendum. Campaigning is his natural mode. Photo: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

No one can pretend to know what the outcome of the general election will be. But a perfectly possible scenario is another hung parliament, perhaps one in which Boris Johnson is again the head of minority administration, maybe dependent on a few votes from independent ex-Conservatives and perhaps the DUP. They might support his general policy programme, allowing him to form a government, but deny him his Brexit deal.

If so, imagine being in his situation. You’ve got your Withdrawal Agreement ready to “go in the microwave.” But yet again you’re snookered by a pesky parliament that can use obscure procedures to get in your way and, it turns out, even having a different speaker doesn’t make much difference. A general election isn’t an immediate option—you’ve just had one.

Now imagine having Johnson’s personality. You’re impatient in general, and impatient with detail in particular. You like dramatic gestures, and you much prefer campaigning to governing. In fact, you have an inviolable belief in your campaigning skills. You’re not overly wedded to principles or consistency, and have no problem with performing U-turns if you see the advantage.

Take these things together, and it’s possible to see that, for Johnson, pivoting to propose another referendum—“my deal” versus Remain—could become an irresistible temptation. And not just to Johnson but to his chief adviser Dominic Cummings. Cummings, after all, lives by the maxim of doing what your opponents least expect, and is on record as saying that the Leave side would easily win another referendum.

This would clearly be a high risk strategy. Opinion polls have shown a consistent preference for Remain for months now. But only by a small margin, which could easily be overturned during a campaign, as happened in 2016. Everyone’s fed up with hearing about Brexit now, especially as in this scenario the election was meant to settle things, so dusting off the “just get it done” slogan from a few weeks ago might well work. Still, it might not, especially if the Remain campaign were this time to be more effective (“just make it stop” might be its best line).

Against the risk, the potential pay-off would be huge. If Johnson held and won such a referendum then he would not only be able to say he had “delivered Brexit” but would also have sealed the result of the 2016 vote. Johnson wouldn’t forever be saddled with the “£350M” lie, which, apparently, irks him. He could hope to leave it behind because even if the second victory was by a similarly thin margin it would do much to end the pervasive taint of dishonesty and malpractice that hangs over the original referendum.

Of course, many would continue to describe that, and this hypothetical second, referendum in those terms. But it wouldn’t have much traction against a “we won, twice” message. The Remain cause would be killed, stone cold dead.

If Johnson did win, he could even envisage holding another election in, say, October 2020 to get a majority. True, that would be the fourth in five years, but it could be pitched as the “get back to normal,” post-Brexit poll. Turnout might be low from a weary electorate, but that could be to his advantage. It could be held before the actual consequences of his deal were felt by the public. The Brexit Party would have lost its raison d’etre. The Liberal Democrats would be shorn of their flagship policy. Labour would be in turmoil as the bitter recriminations of Corbyn’s second electoral defeat would be ripping the party apart.

Would such an about-face be possible? It would cause ructions and divisions in the Conservative Party, but that’s nothing new. Those, among MPs and party members, who genuinely believe that Brexit is the “will of the people,” that the “silent majority” finally spoke and will speak again, would be confident of another victory. The more thoughtful Brexiters would be wary but could be persuaded by the logic of the case, and would be more likely to accept it from Johnson than they would have been from May. The few remaining Tory, or independent Conservative, pro-Europeans would see a final chance to avoid Brexit.

That latter consideration is also the reason why there could be a parliamentary majority to legislate for a referendum. So long as it had Remain on the ballot paper there could be enough opposition MPs to join with the Tories to enact it. In effect Johnson would assemble two temporary coalitions: one for day-to-day business and one to pass referendum legislation. Outside of parliament, too, Remainers would see all the risks for them but, also, the possibilities.

The time needed for the legislation and a campaign would undoubtedly require seeking yet another extension from the EU to beyond 31st January. Most likely, such a referendum wouldn’t be held until, say, June 2020. But it has always been said, and is surely true, that the EU would extend for the purposes of a democratic process. And a mid-2020 extension would not cause real problems for the EU budget-setting process.

Of course there are a hundred objections to this scenario, and it is highly unlikely to come about. But that does not mark it out as different to any other scenario. Something is going to happen, and whatever it is will also have a hundred objections to it and be highly unlikely. If a certain kind of hung parliament comes about then for Johnson another referendum could come to be seen as the worst plan—except for all the others.