Several Tory rebels, from those 21 MPs who had the whip removed, have publicly stated that another EU referendum might be a way out of the current Brexit predicament. Behind closed doors, several are privately considering backing a referendum. This is what was always likely to happen when Johnson kicked them out of the Conservative party – freed from the group, they could contemplate what may be the only way to avoid the no deal they are willing to sacrifice their careers to halt. Johnson must have realised this on some level – is a referendum what he secretly wants?
Getting the Tory Remainers on board is what has always prevented a parliamentary majority for a People’s Vote. Now that this impediment is being removed, it makes a People’s Vote much, much more likely. The current parliament could vote for such a thing in October. In fact, it probably will do so, although anything and everything is possible at this stage.
Again, does Johnson want this, at least a little? Just as a second referendum would have saved May, at least for a while, the same goes for Johnson. Let’s say parliament votes through a referendum to take place in June 2020. If Remain won, I think it would benefit Johnson, so long as he could stay leader of the Conservative party (by no means certain, admittedly). The Brexit question could be put aside, very unlikely to be revisited again; Johnson could talk about a domestic agenda again and remind voters in traditional Tory seats that voting for the Brexit party will not bring you Brexit as the cause is dead, while voting Lib Dem will probably get you Corbyn. In the wake of a 2020 Remain referendum win, I think Boris Johnson would win a 2022 general election. Mostly as an anti-Corbyn vote, but that would probably be enough.
Of course, this seems to cut against all current wisdom. Johnson’s fate is tied to Brexit, isn’t it? Only if he is called upon to deliver it. If the people reject Brexit in a People’s Vote, then Johnson is freed from having to deliver the impossible: a Brexit that isn’t massively damaging.
It is impossible to say what British politics will be like in 2022, referendum or no referendum, so I am not predicting anything here. I’m simply saying that when presented with a host of terrible options, the prime minister might actually be best served by another EU referendum, no matter how odd that sounds.