(I am trying to organize my thinking in this post.)

Three things to bear in mind (first two are facts and the third is an assumption):

  1. It is no longer possible for the Prime Minister to unilaterally call an election in the middle of a term without two-thirds of the House of Commons voting for it.
  2. The Leave vote is split between the Conservatives, the Brexit Party and Labour. The Remain vote in split between the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, SNP and Labour.
  3. Boris Johnson is office-motivated not policy-motivated, i.e. he cares about being elected with a working majority and not about Brexit vs no-Brexit per se. He famously wrote two speeches, one pro-Brexit and one anti-Brexit and thought the former read better and went with it.

Johnson is giving every impression of hurtling towards “no deal”. He has shortened the term of Parliament, he is not negotiating with the EU and has come up with no new alternatives to no deal.

One way to understand this strategy is as the classic Schelling commitment tactic in a game of Chicken versus the EU. No deal would also hurt the EU so if they believe the UK’s threat to leave with no deal is credible, they will concede.

What if the EU does not concede? No deal would be terrible for Johnson’s re-election prospects. There would be an economic crisis, Scotland would start pushing for independence and there could be a similar push in Northern Ireland or even a return to violence.

So Johnson wants to be over-ruled by Parliament. To maximize the incentive of the Lib Dems, Labour and the Remain-backing Conservatives to organize, he needs to give them as little time as possible and give a credible sense he is going for no deal. Once, they overrule him, he can ask for an early election saying the country needs to vote to give Parliament direction. By having gone for no deal, he becomes the Leave candidate, unifies that portion of the electorate behind him while the Remain vote is still split. What happens after that? My guess would be that the UK ends up back in limbo forever stuck in negotiating stance but Johnson is fine with that as long as he gets to be PM.

This is the optimal path from Johnson’s perspective. It seems iteratively dominant to go for no deal. Either the EU blinks and no deal is better than the compromise-Theresa-May deal, or it does not, but no deal is replaced by kicking can down the road which is also better than the compromise deal.

But this relies on some backward induction argument where voters and competing political parties play along with Johnson’s forecast.

The most likely scenario is that Labour and the Lib Dems see through this strategy (though voters do not).

Their most dramatic countermove would be to accept the no deal status quo and leave it up to Johnson to deal with the EU till October 31. He would then cave and lose his brand as the Leave candidate. This would maximize electoral prospects of opposition parties. Some combination of morality, policy motivation, incentive to differentiate from the Conservatives and fear of actual no deal consequences will mean this option is not chosen.

A second move would be to pass no deal legislation and then refuse calls for an early election. This would be both responsible and then leave time for country to see Johnson’s incompetence for a while before an election occurs. But impatience on part of Corbyn for an election which he thinks he can win will undermine the patience required to implement this strategy.

So we are left with the third option which is to prevent no deal and then have an election in November or December once EU agrees to delay implementation of exit. And this is pretty much what Johnson wanted in the first place so his strategy is prescient after all.

 

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