Backstop, Boris Johnson, Brexit, Theresa May

Exit the May; Enter the Boris? #Brexit

This blogpost was written on Tuesday May 21st 


I am slowly losing the will to live. Brexit is driving me to despair. I’m not sure how much more of this stuff I can take. I have tried to make sense of it. God knows I have tried. But no matter how hard I try, and I try hard, I just can’t seem to understand what it is the UK wants. Does anyone?

If indeed you can even say “the UK” as there is little agreement between its four constituent parts, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, over Brexit. But let’s wait and see what numbers the European Parliament elections throw up next weekend. I have little doubt that the “pop-up” Brexit Party of Farage will win about a third of the votes. Which means that two-thirds of the electorate will not be voting for Farage fantasies.

I suspect, when the numbers are sliced and diced, that they will show the UK still pretty evenly split between Leave and Remain, though perhaps with a small lead for Remain. How does any politician deliver major constitutional and economic change in such circumstances without causing deep and long-lasting splits in the community? Quite frankly, it becomes next to impossible to do so.

In any event, we’ll pick over the results of the EU elections in the UK next week, as well as looking at the wider results across Europe.

In the meantime, of more importance is the announcement by the Conservative Party that Theresa May will shortly announce that she will soon announce the date for an announcement of a timetable for the announcement that she will be stepping down as Prime Minister. Whenever that will be. After phase one of Brexit. Whenever that will be.

No wonder I am losing the will to live. At this rate, Brexit will run for longer than Game of Thrones, and ending with everyone just as disappointed.

According to UK newspapers, the frontrunner to be the new Tory leader, and possible Prime Minister, is Boris Johnson. Johnson had a go at being foreign secretary in May’s government but resigned because he said May was not working to deliver a “pure” Brexit, whatever that is. Actually, many people think that he was just looking for an excuse to resign as the hard work involved in being foreign secretary was just, well, too hard for him.

Press reports suggest that Johnson will campaign to become Tory leader on a platform of renegotiating the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU and if the EU will not agree to Johnson’s terms then the UK will leave the EU with no agreement, a so-called “no-deal Brexit”.

Conservative MPs whittle down the list of leadership contenders to two, with the final decision being made by the membership of the Conservative Party in a ballot. However, as Rachael Sylvester comments in the Times:

There is, however, something profoundly undemocratic about the way in which 120,000 disproportionately white, male and elderly Conservative Party members are about to choose the next Prime Minister at this critical moment in the nation’s history.

Especially if the individual so chosen plans to rip the UK out of the EU without an agreement. For – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, plans to say in a speech this evening to the CBI  – the victorious Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum:

“…was clear that we would leave with a deal… So, to advocate for no deal is to hijack the result of the referendum, and in doing so, knowingly to inflict damage on our economy and our living standards.”

Hammond’s comments highlight the first of two problems that will face any in-coming “no-deal” Tory Prime Minister. Their election will do nothing to change the composition of the House of Commons. As currently constituted, there is no majority in the Commons for a “no-deal” Brexit and no amount of bombastic rhetoric from Johnson, or any other possible no-deal Prime Minister, is going to conjure up one.

Which means that even if Johnson is elected as Tory leader there is no guarantee that he will become Prime Minister. If his announced policy is a “no-deal” Brexit then he may not be able to command a majority in the Commons to actually form a government. There are enough Tory MPs who would resign the party whip rather than endorse a potential Prime Minister advocating no-deal.

In which case a general election would be all but inevitable. Elections are strange creatures. No one can predict how they will go. Just ask the Australian Labor Party which was convinced last week that today it would be in government. All the polls said so. Instead, it is back on the opposition benches.

Secondly, even if he did manage to put a government together and get backing in the Commons, Prime Minister Johnson would then have to go and talk to Brussels. Now Brussels is always willing to cut a new national leader some slack. National leaders cooperating together is what makes the system work. But there will be no love waiting for Johnson in the Berlaymont.

Across Europe Johnson is widely seen as, first, a journalist who wrote lying articles about the European Union and then, as a politician, who lied again about the European Union during the referendum campaign. And continues to be dishonest about it.

If you sit down to negotiate with someone who has spent a lifetime badmouthing you, at times comparing the EU to the Nazi regime, it is unlikely that you will offer them a better deal than was available to their predecessor. It is simply not in the EU’s long-term interests to reward bad behaviour.

The European Union will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, covering the UK’s financial obligations, citizens’ rights and the bête noire of the Brexiteers, the Irish backstop. If the UK wants to leave the EU with a deal, then that’s the deal. There is no other deal on offer, nor will there be.

The future relationship between the UK and the EU is for negotiation after the UK has left the EU. The EU has made it clear that it is willing to negotiate a bespoke future arrangement, but that arrangement cannot breach the EU’s own fundamental principles and legal order. There can be no cherry picking, or to use Johnson’s own words, no cake and eat it.

So, a future Prime Minister Johnson, or whoever else it might be, goes to Brussels to demand that the Withdrawal Agreement is reopened and that the backstop is taken out of it. He/she further tells the EU that the UK will only honour its financial obligations in return for a free trade agreement that gives the UK everything it wants.

That is not going to happen. The EU is not going to fold. As Clare Foges says in The Times:

“Expecting them to cave on the Irish backstop is sheer fantasy; doubly fantastical when that request would be coming from the British politicians who have spent years comparing their beloved EU to the Third Reich.”

But, as we have written before, “true” Brexiteers believe that the perceived failure of the UK in the negotiations with the EU is not down to the fact that the UK is by far in the weaker position. It is the one that is leaving – and leavers generally do not get to dictate terms. Especially when the terms the UK is trying to dictate involve holding on to as many of the economic benefits of EU membership as it can but without the concomitant obligations.

But never mind these realities, Brexiteers fervently believe that the UK’s “failure” is all down to personal weaknesses on the part of Mrs May and her team, especially “remainer” civil servants who have done everything they can to sabotage Brexit. What is needed is someone with backbone and a bulldog spirit to stand up to the EU. If you bang the table hard enough, you will get what you want in the end.

This is what you might call the “great man who shouts loudly” theory of negotiations, much beloved of those who have never done any actual negotiations themselves. It also plays well with those who think that the only way to get continental Europeans to understand “plain English” is to talk loudly to them. Very loudly, a le Basil Faulty.

So, sometime later this year the next UK Prime Minister goes to Brussels to demand a shiny, new withdrawal agreement. The EU puts the existing agreement back on the table and the Prime Minister comes home with nothing more than what Theresa May has now. At which point, a general election or a new referendum would appear to be the only options to break the impasse. As the Tories will dread the thought of an election, a referendum may look the safer bet. But then, a referendum at this time could lose them Brexit altogether.

So, do not underestimate the possibility of a Johnson U-turn. He won’t want to go down as one of the shortest-lived PMs in UK history. Nor will members of his cabinet, now stuffed with Brexiteers, want an election where a good number of them stand to lose their seats. They will want to buy time to rebuild.

As a “true believer Brexiteer” Johnson could swivel and tell his colleagues that he tried, but to no avail. Therefore, the UK should leave the EU on the basis of the Withdrawal Agreement, regroup and fight on in the next round on negotiations. A second referendum on the negotiated future terms should not be ruled out. Johnson himself has proposed such an approach previously.

You could see him suggesting that the Withdrawal Agreement is our “Dunkerque moment”, but after Dunkerque we went on to win a glorious victory. “We did so once, we can do so again”.

Johnson gets to do his Churchill impression in the UK’s new “darkest hour”. Stranger things have happened.

Sometimes in politics it is not so much the message as the messenger that counts.

But all that lies in the future. In the here and now, Theresa May will make a final attempt to get the Commons to vote in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Writing in the Sunday Times May said she would make MPs a “new and improved” and “bold” Brexit deal offer.

“I will not be simply asking MPs to think again… Instead I will ask them to look at a new and improved deal with a fresh pair of eyes — and to give it their support.”

The “new and improved” offer appears to consist of incorporating commitments to track EU legislation on workers’ rights and environmental standards into the Withdrawal Agreement. It could also include an undertaking that parliament would have a vote on Britain’s negotiating position for the second round of Brexit talks on a future UK/EU relationship.

It is unlikely to pass. The Tory Brexit-ultras won’t like it because of the Irish backstop. Labour won’t like it because there is no guarantee that May’s successor will honour it and would be able to tear it up if he or she had a parliamentary majority to do so. Further, many Labour MPs will not vote for any proposal that does not contain a commitment to put the final deal to the people through another referendum.

So, we appear to be where we have been for quite some time; deadlocked, with no clear way forward, either now or at any time in the immediate future. Baring a U-turn from a new Prime Minister.

In truth, the way Brexit has been handled has turned it from an economic and political issue into a “culture war” about the meaning of Britishness and democracy. It is all too easy to start such a war. A lot more difficult to bring one to an end.

2 thoughts on “Exit the May; Enter the Boris? #Brexit

  1. Unfortunately, an excellent assessment of the Nightmare on UK Street we, in the UK, are currently living. If only everyone could wake up and smell the coffee.


  2. Well, she’s gone. As Keir Starmer reminded us the day after her resignation speech: before we start feeling sorry for her, we should remember Windrush. (And Grenfell. And the increasing number of victims of the irresponsible roll-out of the obviously flawed Universal Credit. And.. the list goes on).

    The Conservative Party has since also experienced the expected drubbing in the Euro elections, which was an entirely predictable result of not challenging the earlier myths of “easiest deal ever” and of a painless and quick disengagement of the UK economy from the framework enabling the smooth functioning of its interactions with its most important commercial partner.

    This uncritical acceptance of the “win” of the Leave vote based largely on these myths, aggravated by slogans like “no deal is better than a bad deal”, has arguably been the biggest mistake made by Theresa May. It not only allowed for the perpetuation of the idea that all that had been promised could be delivered, but also enabled content-free politicians like Farage and Johnson to keep peddling their empty promises. Reality was always going to be a big disappointment compared to the blue skies mirages that were allowed to persist.

    THE UK doesn’t know what it wants. Different constituent parts, as you point out, want different things. Similarly, individual citizens want different things. This is a direct result of keeping the Leave offer deliberately undefined. People were allowed to pick from any number of reasons (”democratic deficit”, “sovereignty”, “protectionism”, “immigration”, “NHS funding” and huge numbers of others) and a number of possible Brexit outcomes (“Norway”, “Canada”, “clean break”, all of them, crucially without clear caveats about the trade offs involved).

    Of the roughly thirty people I asked who voted Leave, about six were swayed by the promise of increased funding for the NHS. A fair chunk had just wanted to give Cameron and Osborne a good kicking. Some were worried about unbridled immigration. Some were upset about the state of local roads, some thought that selling British strawberries would no longer be prohibited (!). None had any idea of the eventual shape Brexit would take, but all thought their lives would improve in some way as a result.

    This is what MP’s are now required to represent, knowing in their heart of hearts that most of these expected improvements will not materialise. And of course they need to accomplish it without crashing the economy, because nobody had pointed out that that would likely be a side-effect of the only type of Brexit (“hard”) that might make any real difference. A “soft” Brexit, which consists of the Norway relationship plus Single Market membership, and which would have a limited negative impact on the economy, would equate to the status quo, but without a say in further developments. This is what May was up against.

    This is also what any successor will be expected to accomplish. If Johnson hadn’t shown himself to be incapable of feeling any shame or even slight embarrassment about his numerous failures, faux-pas and plain old-fashioned eff-ups, I would advocate letting him try and then watch him go down in flames. Unfortunately, there would be a considerable risk that he’d take Northern Ireland and the economy with him (and that the NHS would be in American hands in no time), and I have too many friends still living in England to contemplate that with equanimity.

    Of course, there is always the – fairly remote – possibility that once Johnson has achieved his goal of grabbing the PM job by any means available (mainly by telling any untruths necessary to seduce the easily-led Tory party membership), he will then do what he knows is best for the country (he’s not stupid, after all) and find some pretext for the country to remain in the EU. He would be the only politician who could possibly pull that off. It’s not like people expect him to keep his word, is it? There would be some initial protest, but most people I’m sure would be relieved to be able to drop the whole thing. Well, I can dream, can’t I?


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