A year on from Boris Johnson’s election victory, his premiership is poised on the edge of a decisive moment. For so much of the time since the EU referendum four and a half years ago, the phrase “no-deal exit” has been what Remainers feared and Leavers pretended not to – now we come to the moment of truth.
Johnson says that Britain could do perfectly well without a trade deal with its biggest single trade partner, but he knows it would not be the ideal outcome. Indeed, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility last month estimated that it would knock two per cent off our national income – another two per cent, after the effect of simply leaving the EU, and on top of the cost of coronavirus.
And the EU says it cannot allow a departing member to cherry-pick access to its single market and must prepare for a no-deal outcome – although everyone knows it is in the interests of both sides to compromise.
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Whatever happens in Westminster in the following days, weeks and months, the next phase of Johnson’s premiership promises to be a fascinating series of political struggles. There is the response of the opposition, under new management and led by Keir Starmer. Just as the Labour leader was beginning to win some big arguments over his handling of coronavirus – calling for a circuit-breaker lockdown two and a half weeks before the prime minister was forced to agree – his response to a possible EU trade deal has opened up new divisions in the shadow cabinet. And Starmer still faces revolt from grassroots members in defence of Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader cast out of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Then there is the struggle between Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon, as the Scottish National Party seeks to exploit the strain that Brexit is imposing on the union of Scotland and England – not to mention the effects of Brexit on the politics of Northern Ireland.
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Meanwhile, the early signs of struggle within the Conservative Party over Johnson’s successor could provide another important plot line, as Tory MPs have proved their ruthlessness over the years in ditching leaders who do not look like election winners. The rise of Rishi Sunak has been one of the most remarkable stories of the past year, but it has been so rapid and the reviews so gushing that there is only one way for him to go now.
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