The no-deal Catch 22 for the Tories is well-established, bringing comfort to those who oppose no-deal (and Brexit) and worry to those who rightly see no-deal as the only way of actually leaving the EU. The idea is that the Tories cannot fight an election until Britain has genuinely left the EU, but that it will be impossible to leave without an election that would put Corbyn in power and stop Brexit altogether.
The conclusion drawn by some Tories is that the new prime minister, whoever it is, will have to ask for another extension. But that’s wrong. And while there is an existential issue for the Tories, there could be an even worse one for Labour – and even a dilemma for the Brexit Party: should they seek a pact with the Tories? Whatever happens, a radical reconfiguring of the political landscape is overwhelmingly likely.
The key to understanding this is the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. One can argue about whether Remain or Leave “won” the European election in terms of vote numbers (it seems reasonable to think that the results understated Leave support since many Leavers did not vote). But that election was not a re-run of the referendum: “Leave” and “Remain” were not on the ballot paper; parties were. And because there were several parties arguing, explicitly or implicitly, for continued British EU membership, each of them lost out individually. Had the elections been on an FPTP basis, the Brexit Party would have gained a large outright majority of seats.
Now that, of course, does not necessarily mean that the Brexit Party could win a majority in the Commons in a general election. But it does mean that Labour has every reason to fear a general election in which Brexit is the most important issue (an election produced by Commons efforts to prevent no-deal). Labour would have to make it clear which side it was on: independence or continued EU membership.
Whatever Corbyn might prefer, it is going to be impossible for Labour to declare for leave. But if it backs a second referendum or opts for revoking Article 50, it is going to be competing for ground occupied more consistently, clearly and, in the eyes of many voters, reliably by the likes of the Lib Dems, Change UK and the Greens. Such parties which would also have the advantage that they would be the natural choice for Remainers, of whatever traditional party allegiance, who are scared of Corbyn.
The Tories might hope that a no-deal prime minister would have enough popular appeal in championing the people against parliament for their party to have some hope on its own. No doubt such a prime minister would recover some of the support lost to the Brexit Party.
But it seems likely that the Tory brand has been so contaminated by the antics of Theresa May, Philip Hammond and others that the party has forfeited its chance of forming a majority government. The very attempt by a Tory prime minister to campaign on a no-deal platform would split Leavers and make it even harder to secure a no-deal in a new parliament. The answer to that problem – an electoral pact with the Brexit Party, a new “coupon election” – is so screamingly obvious that only personalities, not logic, can prevent it from the Tory side. A pact in a Brexit election with the remain parties divided could well, under FPTP, produce an outright majority of seats, if not necessarily of votes.
Faced with the near-inevitability of crushing defeat in such circumstances, the Labour leadership would have no incentive to force an election on the issue of no-deal. It would be more attractive for Labour’s leadership to allow no deal to happen and then try to win a no-confidence vote immediately after Brexit.
The soonest an election could take place after an initial no-confidence vote would be almost two months, time for any initial dislocation from Brexit to have been sorted out. Labour could at least then campaign on non-Brexit issues, somewhat reducing the risk of it being crowded out by other parties.
But it would face several problems. The first is that Tory Remain MPs would, with Brexit resolved, have a reduced incentive to bring the government down – they would then truly be turkeys voting for their individual Christmases.
The second problem, at least for the leadership of the Labour party, is that if Brexit was done and dusted, the long-heralded major split in the party could happen quickly. It has been prevented so far in part by the Tiggers’ strategic error in letting some former Tory MPs join them. But by far the most important factor has been the belief among anti-Corbyn Labour Remainers that staying in the party was the best way of thwarting Brexit. Post-Brexit, the incentives they faced, like those facing Tory Remainers, would look very different.
As a result, the Labour leadership faces real problems. Perhaps Corbyn’s inch-by-inch edging towards shifting the priorities from a general election to the unicorn of a referendum on a ‘deal’ suggests recognition of this.
As for the Tories, a Tory prime minister might feel that in coming to an agreement with Nigel Farage, he or she would be riding a tiger. But compared with the likely outcome of alternative courses, such a pact would be by far the best option.
From the Brexit Party viewpoint, the great advantage of making such a pact is that it would secure Brexit. But much will depend on the Peterborough by-election. Should the Brexit Party win the seat, Farage might give serious thought to the possibility, no longer a ridiculous notion, that he could win a general election even without a pact; but if Labour win, perhaps because the Lib Dems have not done quite enough to split the remain vote – or if the Lib Dem surge continues – a pact might appear more attractive. It would, after all, at least secure a substantial number of MPs, and significant influence, formal, or informal, on policy, for the Brexit Party.
The 2017 election seemed to mark a return to two-party politics, in England at least. But that was because the issue of Brexit had apparently been taken off the table – by the duplicity of the Tory and Labour manifestos. As long as the Brexit issue is the only one on the table – as it is now – the political structure is almost certain to be radically transformed.
Even if no deal happens and the issue of Brexit really disappears, the conduct of the two traditional parties in the past two years will have tainted them so badly that the chance of either of them being able on its own to form a majority government in the foreseeable future is minimal.