January 1, 2024 - 7:00am

A “black swan” is a very unlikely but highly consequential surprise event. By their very nature, black swans can’t be predicted in advance, though they tend to be rationalised later with the gift of hindsight. “Grey swans”, however, are different: though they probably won’t happen, they could plausibly — and foreseeably — change the course of events.

Here, for 2024, are five of these potential game-changers:

1. Let’s start at home with British politics. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has claimed that this will be an election year. But what if we have a change of government before the general election? If Sunak plans on going to the country in the autumn he still has to survive local elections on the 2nd May. It’s conceivable that the results are so bad that he’s forced to resign.

Yet another new Tory PM would face a crisis of legitimacy, but if chosen shortly before the summer, he or she (probably she) could immediately announce an autumn election. The odds are against it, but in the continued absence of a Tory recovery, it’s an underrated scenario.

2. It’s an election year in America, too. Here, the grey swan scenario is that one or both of Biden and Trump don’t make it to the final contest. The most risk-laden scenario is that Trump is stopped from running by legal means. It’s already happening in the states of Colorado and Maine; but if panicking Democrats launch a serious nationwide effort in 2024, American democracy will come under strain as never before.

Then there’s the actual vote. Razor-edge results in swing states could leave the outcome in limbo, while lawyers and judges choose the next president. This would not augur well.

3. Stalemate of a bloodier kind was the story of 2023 in Ukraine. The promise of a Ukrainian breakthrough was clearly oversold, yet the possibility of significant change in 2024 is now being undersold.

Given the near frozen frontlines of the past 12 months, comparisons to the trench warfare of the First World War come naturally. But that’s to forget how that conflict ended in 1918 — with the sudden collapse of one of the sides.

Kiev will hope that, in 2024, it’s the invading side again.

4. A guaranteed event this year is that the UK’s parochial Covid inquiry will continue wasting money on the wrong questions.

The primary, correct question pertains to how we stop such a calamity from ever happening again — and for that we need clarity on the origins on the virus.

There’s scant chance of the Chinese government coming clean. But 2024 might just be the year when the Western scientific consensus shifts decisively in favour of the lab-leak hypothesis. Perhaps then we can get started on global negotiations to control dangerous experiments.

5. In 2024 the once-liberal Netherlands will decide whether to appoint a fiercely anti-immigration Right-winger as prime minister. Geert Wilders came a clear first in November’s general election — but will need the support of mainstream parties to take the top job. They could still block him and force fresh elections, but polls show he’d get even more seats.

It’s a lose-lose scenario for the Euro-establishment. With EU Parliamentary elections due this year, the last thing they want is to normalise populist leaders in Western Europe. But frustrating the will of the people risks a voter backlash.

Looking ahead, the horizon is full of grey swans. Our leaders ought to be prepared, but whether they really will be is an entirely different matter.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.