If Brexit is to succeed, an awful lot of improbable things will have to right. For it fail, a lot of probable things have to go wrong. The Europeans do not want to damage the integrity of the single market. Theresa May is head of a minority government. The Democratic Unionist Party, on whose support she depends, does not want to damage the integrity of the United Kingdom.
The Brexiteers do not want to betray a project that they have devoted their lives to. The Labour Party does not want to save a failing government. All this means the result could easily be chaos and paralysis—and chaos and paralysis could just as easily lead to one of three catastrophes.
The first is that Britain falls out of the European Union without a deal—that is, the EU decides to treat Britain as a third country without any co-operative agreements to facilitate trade. Given that the EU is Britain’s biggest trading partner and that modern companies depend on just-in-time deliveries, this would be a hammer blow to the economy.
The government is currently the world’s largest procurer of fridges. Supermarkets might find it impossible to get fresh food. Lorries might be delayed at ports for days, producing massive traffic jams. Medicines might run out. Such short-term disasters would lead to longer-term problems as output declined, tax receipts plunged and the government had to cut back public spending.
The second is that Britain has a snap general election and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party wins. Mrs May could easily decide that the only way to escape paralysis is to ask the people to vote. If so, the public may decide that it has had enough of Tory incompetence, and give Mr Corbyn a chance. But Mr Corbyn is the most left-wing leader the Labour Party has ever had. He has threatened to confiscate 10% of the shares of all British companies with more than 250 employees. He wants to nationalise the utilities and railways, and give much more power to trade unions. The result could be a war between Labour and the markets, as global investors withdraw their money and the government responds by imposing capital controls.
The third is that Parliament decides to hold another referendum. Most Remainers, and EU officials, would jump for joy. But it might further confuse the situation. Would Britons be asked to choose between two options (remaining or leaving on Mrs May’s terms) or three (remaining, leaving on Mrs May’s terms, or leaving on world trade rules)? And if Britain can have a second referendum, why not a third? There could be riots on the streets if the Leavers feel they have had victory snatched from them.
Britain likes to think of itself as a sensible place that ultimately muddles through. The coming year could see that great illusion shattered.