A predictable Brexit disaster

Dr Oliver Hartwich
15 May, 2019

The problem with being an expert is that people regularly ask you for predictions. As if your knowledge of something would automatically let you know the future. That sure would be nice, but expertise is different from prescience.

Thus, when I am asked for predictions, I usually brush it off politely. My standard line is that questions about the future should be directed to astrologers, not mortal economists.

However, there are exceptions. When the future appears certain that no special skills are required to forecast it correctly, I am happy to offer my opinions.

As it turns out, even then I should not. At least if Brexit is involved. It simply follows no rules of logic.

In mid-February, I spoke on a Brexit panel discussion hosted by the German-New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Auckland. In the Q&A, I was asked about the likelihood of either a second referendum or a snap election.

My answer was clear and delivered with a certainty that makes the Pope’s infallibility look second-rate.

Of course, there could be no snap election or referendum, I boldly declared. Both would take way too much time to organise, and that was time the United Kingdom did not have to meet the then-scheduled 29 March Brexit Day.

A Brexit extension was also impossible since it would require Britain to participate in the European Parliament elections, and that would create mayhem for the UK’s political system. No-one would be so foolish to try that.

Well, I did not quite get that one right, did I?

With that much egg on my face, it is even harder to see Brexit developments clearly. But strangely, the latest opinion polls from the UK give me a sense of reassurance. My predictions may have been wrong, yet my reasoning behind them was not.

Prime Minister Theresa May had spent two years repeating her three mantras ad nauseam: 1) Brexit means Brexit. 2) The UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019. 3) No deal is better than a bad deal.

But she gave up on all three. Her ‘deal’ was membership of the EU by another name. When she could not get it through the House of Commons, she was willing to extend the deadline. And when it became clear that ‘no deal’ does not have enough support in Parliament (and even in her cabinet), she gave up on that too.

I cannot think of any other issue of significance in which a Prime Minister would have walked away from such firm commitments with similar nonchalance. Therefore, it is unsurprising that voters will punish May for this grave breach of trust.

The UK local elections already gave us a taste of the bloodbath that is going to happen in British politics. May’s Tories lost over 1,300 councillors. It would have been more if voters had not also simultaneously punished Labour for their complicity in the Brexit disaster. And it could have been much worse for both the Tories and Labour had Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party run candidates at the local level.

The upcoming European Parliament elections will be a different story. The latest ComRes poll, conducted on 9 May, has the Tories on a dismal 13 percent of the vote. That would put them in fourth place after the Brexit Party (27 percent), Labour (25 percent) and the Liberal Democrats (14 percent).

But wait, it gets worse for the Tories. Whereas the European Parliament elections could be classified as a protest vote in the UK, polls for the next UK general election are the real deal. And thanks to the UK’s first-past-the-post system, they could lead to a landslide if a general election was called now.

ComRes found these voting intentions for the House of Commons: Labour on 27 percent, the Brexit Party on 20 percent, the Tories on 19 percent, the Liberal Democrats on 14 and Change UK on 7 percent.

Such a result would see the Tories lose 24.5 percent of their 2017 general election result and Labour 14 percent (see table). Still, because this is not a proportional representative electoral system, the Tories would lose almost half their seats in Parliament whereas Labour would gain enough seats to bring it close to an absolute majority in the Commons. Farage’s Brexit Party would enter Parliament with around 50 seats.

table newsroom

(Source: Seats prediction by ElectoralCalculus.co.uk based on ComRes Survey of Voting Intentions)

Such an election outcome would practically destroy the Conservatives. It would take them years to recover and rebuild from this defeat, and even that is not guaranteed. It would also lead to a Labour-led minority government under Jeremy Corbyn, the most radical Labour leader since Michael Foot. And it would create a new party for former Tories, most likely to be led by Nigel Farage.

This development was predictable. May’s abject failure to deliver Brexit would always pulverise her party and the political system with it.

Somewhat naively, I thought she and her party would not let it come to that.

How wrong I was.

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