If there really are parallel universes – “many worlds” – here’s what’s happening in ten of them. I pick up events in their summers of 2019 in their United Kingdoms.
All have an event in common: Theresa May hasn’t been forced from office. What happens next? Let me take you on a tour of ten of those Britains.
Parallel Universe One: Parliament cannot make a decision. There is no second referendum. Britain leaves the EU without a deal.
In this universe, the EU proves itself ultimately willing to take the blame for ending Brexit negotiations – so exhausted is it by Parliament’s incapacity to agree an alternative to the Withdrawal Agreement that MPs rejected three times.
A No Deal Brexit turns out to be less bad for Britain (and the EU) than some claimed but worse for both than others predicted – perhaps unsurprisingly. The Fixed Terms Parliament Act requires a general election in May 2022.
Since Britain has left the EU, the Brexit Party loses its traction. And since there is No Deal, the Liberal Democrats, standing on a Rejoin Now platform, perform well in much of the Greater South-East.
They take votes mainly from Labour which, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, refuses to back the Rejoin Now campaign – promising a negotiation to improve the terms of No Deal “with a view to a second referendum”.
Meanwhile, Conservative MPs who backed May’s deal or support a second referendum face a choice: fall in behind their leader, or else leave Parliament altogether.
Most take the former course. Labour polls poorly in the Red Wall, and May gains a Commons majority of about 30 seats.
Since the “gang of 21” never lost the whip, many of its members stay in Parliament. May forms a Tory “Unity Cabinet” to help steer Britain through the No Deal aftermath.
Its members include: Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond, David Davis, Amber Rudd and Liam Fox. In that universe’s equivalent of today, the Rejoin movement has captured the Labour Party under its leader, Keir Starmer.
It is making political headway – and Republican violence is set to return to Northern Ireland amidst dispute about the land border, as the SNP continues to strengthen its position in Scotland.
Parallel Universe Two: Parliament cannot make a decision. There is no second referendum. The EU extends negotiations to beyond May 2020.
The EU proves is unwilling to take the blame for ending the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations and continues to offer extensions for talks.
The Fixed Terms Parliament Act requires a general election in May 2022, and the EU offers a new deadline for the end of July.
May puts her deal to the voters. The Brexit Party campaigns for its rejection. Between a third and a half of Conservative MPs join it.
May has little alternative but to remove the whip from them. The Tories split. (Labour campaigns on “our deal, not May’s deal…with a view to a second referendum”.
The Liberal Democrats, standing on a Rejoin Now platform, perform well in much of the Greater South-East. Labour polls poorly in the Red Wall.)
But if the Left vote is in a divided state the Right vote is even more so. A minority share of its support goes to the Mayites; some of the majority goes to the Brexit Party, the rest of it to anti-May independent Conservatives,
May’s loyalist rump of supporters and a bewildering alliance of Brexit Party and independent Conservatives can’t agree terms in the new Parliament.
Corbyn drops Labour’s proposed deal and agrees to hold a second referendum. He becomes Prime Minister. The Mayite group of MPs agrees not to oppose a referendum bill. The Liberal Democrats fall in behind one.
Iain Duncan Smith emerges as acting Leader of the Opposition, heading a loose alliance of independent Tories and Brexit MPs – which has their own leader, Nigel Farage. There is talk of a merger.
Parallel Universe Three: Parliament cannot make a decision. There is no second referendum. The EU extends negotiations to beyond May 2020. But there’s a twist…
As above – but May loses a confidence ballot of Conservative MPs before a general election can be called. However, Downing Street and CCHQ claim that there is no time to hold a full leadership contest before the election.
There is a blizzard of lawsuits. Tory MPs settle on Boris Johnson as their acting leader after a ballot of MPs. More lawsuits follow, and May resigns.
Johnson becomes Prime Minister and pledges a new Withdrawal Agreement with no border in the Irish sea – or else No Deal. The election takes place.
(The Liberal Democrats, standing on a Rejoin Now platform, perform well in much of the Greater South-East. Labour polls poorly in the Red Wall. The Brexit Party wins a handful of seats.)
Johnson is returned with a majority of approximately 40. The Conservatives hold a full leadership election which he wins nem con. He goes on to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement and trade deal like those we are familiar with.
In this universe’s equivalent of yesterday, the Conservatives lost the North Shropshire by-election, and the threshold to trigger a confidence ballot in Johnson is lower.
Parallel Universe Four: Parliament votes for a second referendum. The EU extends negotiations. And…
In this universe, Theresa May eventually and reluctantly assents to a second referendum – and some Tory MPs who supported her deal or were pro-Remain or both join with the opposition in Parliament to vote for one.
However, May soon loses a confidence ballot of Conservative MPs. Corbyn calls a vote of no confidence in the Government. He wins – but with an insufficient majority under the requirements of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.
There is a race between the progress of the Second Referendum Bill and the date of the coming general election, with a full but telescoped Conservative leadership election taking place at the same time.
Boris Johnson is elected Tory leader and becomes Prime Minister. The general election wins the race. Johnson pledges a new Withdrawal Agreement with no border in the Irish sea – or else No Deal.
The election thus becomes a referendum on the referendum. The Liberal Democrats, standing on a Rejoin Now platform, perform well in much of the Greater South-East. Labour polls poorly in the Red Wall.
The Brexit Party wins a handful of seats. Johnson is returned with a majority of approximately 60. He goes on to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement and trade deal like those we are familiar with…
Parallel Universe Five: Parliament votes for a second referendum. The EU extends negotiations. But…
As above…but the Referendum Bill beats the general election in the race against time. For the sake of convenience, it’s agreed to hold the referendum and the election on the same day.
Johnson wins the election, urges a Leave vote, is returned with a majority of approximately 150, and the referendum re-endorses Leave. He goes on to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement and trade deal like those we are familiar with.
Parallel Universe Six: Parliament votes for a second referendum. The EU extends negotiations. Then…
As above…but although Johnson forms a government with a majority of about 30 the referendum endorses Remain. Most of the Conservative Parliamentary Party refuses to support a referendum bill. Johnson follows its lead.
There is a blizzard of lawsuits.
Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, pledges a referendum if Labour wins the 2024 general election. Johnson goes on to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement and trade deal like those we are familiar with.
Parallel Universe Seven: Parliament votes for a second referendum. The EU extends negotiations. However…
As above…but Jeremy Corbyn forms a Government with a majority of about 30 and the referendum endorses Leave. Corbyn goes on to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement and trade deal much like those we are familiar with.
He is Brexit Britain’s Marxist Prime Minister. Johnson resigns as Conservative leader. The pro-Leave Tory Party elects a new leader – his Shadow Trade Secretary, Liz Truss.
Parallel Universe Eight: Parliament votes for a second referendum. The EU extends negotiations. Nonetheless…
As above…but Jeremy Corbyn forms a Government with a majority of about 80 and the referendum endorses Remain. He is the Marxist Prime Minister of an EU member state.
Johnson resigns as Conservative leader.
The pro-Leave and enraged Tory Party elects a new leader – his Shadow Trade Secretary, Liz Truss. In her leadership campaign, she pledges a third referendum if the Conservatives win the next general election.
Parallel Universe Nine. Remain wins the 2016 EU referendum…
…By 52 per cent to 48 per cent. Nigel Farage claims the referendum was rigged. There are claims that the use of pencils was responsible.
UKIP comes in on between ten and 20 per cent in the polls. David Cameron stands down as Conservative leader as promised. Boris Johnson replaces him – having promised Party members a second referendum.
He won the 2020 election narrowly and, in this universe’s equivalent of today, is prevaricating over holding a referendum, largely because he’s frightened of losing.
He claims that Covid has made holding a vote impractical “for the time being”. The ERG is threatening him with a no confidence vote.
Parallel Universe Ten. There was no 2016 EU referendum.
As above – except that the referendum Johnson promised would be a first on Brexit, not the second.
And back in our own universe, there may be a lesson from these others
Maybe you can conjure up more credible scenarios than my ten. But none of them are beyond belief. And certain elements keep cropping up.
One of these is four names: Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starrmer and Boris Johnson. However many parallel universes you go to, Stamer keeps turning up as Corbyn’s successor.
That’s because Labour was always likely to look after the latter for a Remainer on the centre-left of the party who had been part of Corbyn’s team. Not too alike, not too unalike.
And in however many of those other worlds you visiit, Boris Johnson keeps turning up as Theresa May or David Cameron’s successor sooner or later.
That’s because the Conservatives have been a Leave-orientated party for some time, and were always likely to look sooner or later for a Leaver who could win them an election.
My point is this. Boris Johnson is unpopular, his government is flawed – and it’s easy to believe that the British people were wrong to vote for the Conservative Party under his leadership in 2019.
But none of the alternatives – No Deal, a second referendum, a Corbyn premiership and Theresa May – command consensus support, to put it mildly.
And even if one or all of of those options would have better (in your view), the point remains. This has recently been and still is a deeply divided country.
“Unserious”, unreliable, “ungrown-up” and shamboliic and even scandalous as he may be, Johnson is there for a reason.
It could have been worse and may yet be.