What Boris Johnson fears more than a no-deal Brexit

What Boris Johnson fears more than a no-deal Brexit

If U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems rather glib about the idea of his country crashing out of the European Union without a deal – an outcome that myriad authoritative bodies have predicted will be highly costly for the U.K. economy — it is most likely because there is something he fears more than that.

Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is far from a real opposition party. It doesn’t not have a single member of parliament. It may even have peaked in the polls since Johnson took the Conservative Party reins. But it could easily pose a threat to the Conservatives winning an electoral majority. Johnson’s hell-for-leather lurch toward a no-deal Brexit isn’t really about getting Brussels to offer concessions so much as keeping Farage at bay.

In talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron ahead of the G-7 summit, Johnson repeated his desire to see Britain and the EU reach an agreement that allows the U.K. to leave the EU on Oct. 31 with a deal. But the U.K. prime minister offered no willingness to compromise, only an insistence that the EU should.

Had his predecessor, Theresa May, managed to win a compromise from Brussels that put a time limit on the disputed Irish backstop – the insurance policy built into the deal that maintains an open Irish border by keeping the U.K. in the EU’s customs union – Johnson would have been delighted. Now Johnson wants the backstop scrapped entirely, a much tougher position that emerged relatively late in his party leadership campaign.

That stance was initially seen by many as merely a negotiating gambit; a signal to the EU that his no-deal threats were serious. Rather, it was more likely an acknowledgement that it would be hard to exorcise the Faragist threat to Conservatives unless he too worshipped at the altar of a “clean break” Brexit, as the no-deal variant is sometimes called.

The Brexit Party, which will launch its own election plans on Tuesday, is keeping up the pressure. After Johnson’s letter to the EU confirming he could not accept the backstop but holding out the hope of some kind of compromise, Farage pounced. He warned Johnson that even scrapping the backstop but accepting the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement would betray the 2016 “leave” vote. David Davis, a hardline Brexiter who served as Brexit Secretary under May, also warned that just getting rid of the backstop wouldn’t be enough to make the deal acceptable.

In other words, Brexiters – who wouldn’t have dreamed of promoting a no-deal exit back in 2016 — have moved the goal posts again. Now, it’s hard to see any compromise that won’t be cast as a sell-out.

For Johnson, this presents a longer term problem. In the wake of a deal over the backstop that got through parliament, Britain would have its transition period and, pretty soon, a new U.K. trade delegation would schlepp off to Brussels to negotiate the future trade relationship. You can imagine how that would play out back in Britain. Michel Barnier (or his replacement) and his team — far more experienced negotiators holding better cards — would run circles around the U.K. side. Every concession would become another cause of national hand-wringing over the drip-drip from the glacier of British sovereignty melting into an ocean of EU rules.

In other words, what is the real reward for doing a Brexit deal now from Johnson’s perspective? Nigel Farage would become the Greta Thunberg of the sovereigntist cause. Britain will be in a constant and never-ending state of sovereignty emergency. Government will be under attack from within. The betrayal narrative started with the opposition to May’s deal and has been growing ever since; Johnson may have decided (along with his top advisor and focus-group guru Dominic Cummings) that only a no-deal Brexit can quash it.

A no-deal Brexit, of course, doesn’t settle matters. Far from it; the U.K. will have to re-enter negotiations with the EU very soon just to keep from sinking into a prolonged recession. There are serious risks, from the much-feared shortages of food and medicine and transport disruptions to lost investment and business closures.  

And yet by the time the two sides sit down again, Johnson will have hoped to have won an election and banished Farage to the wilderness again. And having proved he was willing to walk away, he’ll have answered those who accused him of insincerity. But Johnson is gambling that he can win an election in the chaotic aftermath of no-deal Brexit — by no means a sure thing. If he loses, he risks destroying what’s left of the Conservative Party’s reputation for competence.

The EU also has a high hurdle to clear to reach a compromise. Breaching its own red lines – particularly in upholding the single market – could cause other EU countries to make demands of their own, which would be worse than no deal because it would be seen as posing an existential threat to the Union. Much would depend on the stance taken by Ireland, which has the most to lose from a no-deal Brexit and which is party to the Good Friday Agreement that has been the reason for the backstop arrangement.

Still, of the two sides, Johnson has further to travel. Hardline Brexiters now see no-deal as the ultimate test of faith and will fight the next election on that ground if they can. If he is to agree on any deal, it must be one that doesn’t oxygenate Farage’s side. 

None of this is to say that Johnson would prefer to leave with no deal if there were an acceptable compromise on offer. It’s just that, at the moment, a no-deal Brexit might look politically more attractive than the risks he would have to run for the sake of an agreement.


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