[IMPORTANT NOTE: I take no position on whether Brexit was good or bad, and none of the following is to be construed as favoring Brexit. I am merely providing an objective political analysis of the situation in the aftermath]
All this “Brexit might not happen” talk is interesting, and contains elements of truth, but I think that it ignores the broader political reality (and especially the math) facing the people who will be making these decisions.
There has been a not altogether unreasonable case to be made that Boris and Gove have already sealed their own fate, now that everybody is having second thoughts, and that they couldn’t possibly go through with it, and they’re finished politically no matter what they do.
If Boris doesn’t actually stand for the leadership, yes he is through. He will look like a coward and I don’t think he could ever recover from that. If he stands for the leadership, wins, and then doesn’t follow through with Brexit, his party wipes him out, and probably the Tories get decimated in the next general election with half or more of their voters deserting them for UKIP, and notably, it would be extremely damaging to the trust of the general public in the nature of British democracy (something really being underestimated by the “Do Over” crowd…ignoring election results sets a very bad precedent). So it seems incredibly unlikely that he would want to win and then humiliate himself like this.
So to me the only viable possibilities for Brexit not happening are:
1 — Parliament calls a general election under one of the two exceptional provisions of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act and a snap election happens before the scheduled Tory party conference in October, possibly risking the legitimacy of parliament in the process — but it’s conceivable that this could happen.
2 — The Tories get cold feet on Brexit at the party conference and choose a leader who vows not to file the Article 50 (of the Lisbon Treaty) notification, again risking that half their ranks bolt to UKIP in the next General Election, but probably generating a realignment that wipes the LibDems out once and for all, and the future of British politics looks like Labour/SNP vs Tory/UKIP.
Now, there’s a good reason to believe that #2 is absolutely impossible, which is the math of British politics as of today.
As of today, the Tories hold 318 constituencies in England, 1 in Scotland (technically Scottish Conservative Party), and 11 in Wales.
Labour holds 205 in England, 1 in Scotland, and 25 in Wales, with the Scottish National Party, who is ideologically pretty aligned with Labour, holding 54 constituencies in Scotland.
As much as they may think they are tied to the Union (Her Majesty’s, not the European one), the Tories might realize that in the end, they are better off without Scotland and let Nicola Sturgeon have her 2nd referendum. Let the Scots leave, and let the Irish re-unify, and then you have a situation where the Tories would be at around 57% of the remaining seats at Westminster.
A United Kingdom of England and Wales would still be a nation of 56 million people, would still be a permanent member of the UN security council, would still be a nuclear power, would still have the Commonwealth, would be free of the perpetual conflict over Northern Ireland, and it would be free of its subsidies to both the EU and Scotland, and the EU regulations that stirred Brexit to begin with.
If you are a Tory, this probably sounds like a pretty good scenario. And depending on how the split with Scotland took place, you might even see an exodus of Labour voters move north of the wall to live in the Tory-free zone of Britain.
So what about the scenario where all of this happens and then the angry voters kick Boris and his party out at the next General Election in 2020, demanding to go back to the European Union.
Well, by then the exit negotiations will have taken place, withdrawal completed, and the point of no return long passed. If in 2020 Britain were to reapply to join the EU, it would be as a beggar, under horrid conditions, and highly unlikely to receive the required unanimous approval of the member states.
This means that the one remaining option would be an early General Election after Boris becomes Prime Minister but before withdrawal has been completed in the hopes that the Article 50 notification could be rescinded. But this seems unlikely because the Tories are going to at some point do the above analysis, and conclude that the damage is already done and the only option is to go full commitment, Mandrake, and see the whole thing out to the end and try to make lemonade.
My assumption is that Boris probably has already done this whole analysis. Despite the media comparisons, he’s not Donald Trump. He’s not a buffoon, he just plays one on TV. He’s an Eton and Oxford educated member of the British elite who managed to be the second elected mayor of London. Assuming he doesn’t flinch, he has a clear path to long-term political victory for himself and for the Tories in England and, regardless of your judgment of whether it’s good or bad, will be remembered as the person who permanently changed the landscape of British and European politics.
But of course, two weeks is an eternity in politics, and anything could happen. With Game of Thrones over for the season, the British version promises to be even more harrowing, but as usual, shorter and all the characters will die in the end.