Backstop, Boris Johnson, Brexit, Conservative Party, Northern Ireland

Boris Leaves #Brexit Wriggle Room

This blogpost was written on Sunday morning, June 9th, 2019


It’s as if the past three years never happened. Airbrush Theresa May and her Brexit negotiations out of history. It’s back to the morning after the referendum and the UK “holds all the cards”.

Well, that seems to be the way Boris Johnson, favourite to become the next Tory leader and Prime Minister, sees it. Or, at least, wants us to see it. Maybe it is all smoke and mirrors.

In an interview in the Sunday Times, Johnson says that, if elected his government would:

  • Hold on to the £39bn Brexit divorce payment until Brussels agreed more favourable terms
  • Scrap the Northern Ireland Backstop and settle the Irish border issue only when the EU was ready to agree a future relationship
  • Guarantee the rights of the 3.2m EU citizens living in the UK
  • Step up preparations for no-deal and prepare for “disruption”.

If there is no deal with the EU on these terms, he would then take the UK out on October 31st next with no deal. Raw, red meat for the Brexit ultras, it would seem.

Johnson never mentions that he was Foreign Secretary when May signed off on the Backstop and the £39bn in December 2017 and only resigned some six months later.

As Jeremy Corbyn might have put it: Johnson was there but now denies he was involved.

Or, as Michael Gove might say: That’s my line and I’m sniffing to it.

Meanwhile, over in the Sunday Telegraph, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, says: … that the next Prime Minister will fail in any attempt to renegotiate the Brexit deal… warning the new leader’s choice is to accept the agreement, cancel Brexit or suffer a damaging no deal.

Barnier said that it would make no difference who eventually succeeded Theresa May and that the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Mrs May was “the only one possible”. He added:

“A new Prime Minister will not change the problem… The problem is there and the new Prime Minister will have the responsibility with us to solve this problem.”

So, that appears to be where we are heading: a potential UK Prime Minister who seems to want to begin the Brexit negotiations ab initio and an EU which says that the negotiations are over and that the deal on the table is all there is and all there will be.

No new negotiations, in other words. Johnson will be politely welcomed in Brussels, given some tea and cake, and then sent home empty handed. Unless he wants to talk about the Political Declaration on the future relationship.

All of which means that, if he is true to his word, Johnson, as Prime Minister, will attempt to take the UK out of the EU on October 31st next with a “no-deal” Brexit. His only problem is that there is no majority in the House of Commons for such a course of action, because the majority of MPs know how damaging to the UK economy it would be. The damage is already being done.

Faced with this situation Johnson might be tempted to go for the “Raab Ultimatum” and have the Queen suspend (prorogue) Parliament so it can’t block a “no-deal” crash out on October 31st. Or, to put this another way, deny parliamentary sovereignty so Brexit can go ahead. Of course, the raison d’etre of Brexit is to restore sovereignty to parliament. Deny sovereignty to restore sovereignty. Through the looking-glass politics. However, the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has said he will not allow parliament to be side-lined, so suspension is unlikely to happen.

This, of course, assumes that Johnson becomes Prime Minister if elected Tory leader. If he presents a government to the House of Commons, based on the above Brexit proposals, there is every possibility he could fail to secure the backing of the House.  If this happens a general election could be all but inevitable.

But let us assume that Johnson is elected Prime Minister, goes to Brussels, comes back with nothing to show and the Commons blocks a no-deal exit. So, what then happens? It is impossible to say because it would seem that at that point all Brexit roads are blocked.

Could a general election at that point break the impasse? Perhaps. But first, some figures. Based on the recent results of the election for the European Parliament, the Peterborough by-election during the past week, and new research here, it would seem that support for a “burn it all down and damn the consequences” Brexit probably runs at around 30%. “Remain” hovers somewhere about 50%, while the other 20% would be happy with a “soft Brexit” and probably could be persuaded that “remain” is actually the better option.

Based on this type of data, it has been estimated that a general elections, given the oddity of the UK’s “first-past-the-post” system, would throw up the following result:

  • Labour                  251 seats
  • Brexit Party         135
  • Conservatives     132
  • SNP                        55
  • Liberals                 53
  • Green Party            1

Labour would be the biggest party but would be unable to form a government without the support of the Scottish SNP and the Liberals. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is committed to a “jobs first Brexit” and would seek to renegotiate the Brexit deal with Brussels. Again, the EU will not change the Withdrawal Agreement but, depending on the ask of a Labour government, would be willing to redraw the Political Declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. This would certainly be the case if Labour expressed an interest in staying in the customs union and the single market.

But the price for Labour of SNP and Liberal support would be a commitment to another referendum with the choice being between whatever agreement Labour brought back from Brussels and “Remain”. It is unlikely “no deal” would be an option on the referendum ballot paper.

There is every incentive for Boris Johnson, if elected Prime Minister, to avoid an early general election. So, how does he manage this if Brussels refuses to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and he is committed to leaving, come what may, on October 31st?

Look more closely at his comments in the Sunday Times:

“I think our friends and partners need to understand that the money is going to be retained until such time as we have greater clarity about the way forward. I always thought it was extraordinary that we should agree to write that entire cheque before having a final deal. In getting a good deal, money is a great solvent and a great lubricant.”

Read those words carefully. Plenty of wriggle room there for an experienced negotiator. “Greater clarity about the way forward…” could easily be understood as spelling out in more detail in the Political Declaration the shape of the future relationship between the UK and the EU. It is worth keeping in mind that Johnson does not share May’s monomaniacal obsession with ending freedom of movement which could open the door to a single market relationship in future talks.

Look also at the words “… I always thought it was extraordinary that we should agree to write that entire cheque before having a final deal”. The entire cheque was never going to be written before a final deal was in place. The payments are due to be staged over many years. It would not be too difficult for a word-meister like Johnson to spin a tale of staged payments as a major concession by the EU.

Even his language on scrapping the Backstop and settling “the Irish border issue only when the EU was ready to agree a future relationship” is open to interpretation.

As the Irish commentator, Daniel Keohane, has commented:

The “border issue” would be settled during the future relationship negotiations anyway. The Backstop is an insurance policy, in case that agreement is not reached during the transition (2-4 years).

Boris Johnson has not spent his entire life believing he is entitled to be Prime Minister only to toss it away within months of grasping the prize. He will not want to be remembered as one of the shortest-lived Prime Minister ever. Never underestimate the power of ego and vanity.

So, do not be surprised if Johnson comes back from Brussels with the same Withdrawal Agreement as Theresa May negotiated and a somewhat different Political Declaration on the future relationship. The same package just with some new wrapping. Smoke and mirrors. Sometimes, it is the singer and not the song that counts.

Of course, the Brexit ultras are never going to buy this but most Conservative MPs probably would and, if he could attract sufficient Labour MPs to support his deal, he could get Brexit over the line. That would buy him three years before the next general election to rebuild the Conservative Party. In the meantime, Farage’s Brexit Party would have nowhere to go. They would immediately lose their MEPs and with no general election on the horizon and the UK having left the EU would soon wither on the vine.

It also needs to be remembered that once the Withdrawal Agreement is accepted the UK moves into a transition period. As of the moment, the timings of that transition were set with a leave date of March 29th, 2019 in mind.

But, if the leave date is to be October 31st or later, a new transition schedule could quickly be agreed. During the transition nothing changes, and the UK continues as if it were a de facto member of the EU, but without participating in EU decision-making.  All of which would allow Johnson to face into the next UK general election in 2022 with Brexit “delivered” and no disruption to the daily lives of people because nothing much will have changed.

In his Sunday Times interview Johnson refers to the mythical sea monsters from Greek legend, Scylla and Charybdis and says:

“I truly believe only I can steer the country between …Corbyn and Farage and onto calmer water. This can only be achieved by delivering Brexit as promised on October 31 and delivering a One Nation Tory agenda.”

There’s the sales pitch. “I have renegotiated the deal with Brussels. Staged payments of the €39bn. Brussels committed to work with us to develop “alternative arrangements” so the Backstop never has to be used. Take my deal and we are out of the EU. Brexit delivered. And once out, we have all the time we need to negotiate in detail our future relationship with the EU.”.

And with a touch of De Gaulle he concludes: “Take the deal, because the deal is all there is. Apres moi, le déluge”.

Smoke and mirrors. The critical question? Would sufficient Labour MPs break ranks to support a Johnson Brexit package? Watch this space.


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