Boris’s Brexit Bluster

Boris Johnson entered Downing Street like a gun-slinger announcing his entrance at the last chance saloon. His cabinet cull, of seventeen departures was unprecedented in British politics. Some of the country’s most ideological Brexiteers have joined his team; Jacob Rees-Mogg promoted to the role of Leader of the House, Dominic Rabb, the EU’s most hated former Brexit Secretary promoted to Foreign Secretary and Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s insufferable architect brought to the heart of the Downing Street unit. The optics worked, the clearing out of Theresa May’s team and Cummings pictured behind the Cabinet Secretary in his trademark anarchic attire served to hail in a new British politics. This looked like a change of tempo as well as a change of personnel. The next morning the cabinet convened at 8am, endorsing Boris’s “do or die” 31st October deadline, followed by a Parliamentary question time where the new Prime Minister doubled down on his red-lines. Theresa May was spotted at Lord’s watching England’s demise at the cricket, a metaphor if one was needed.

Dominic Cummings, far right, watches on as Boris Johnson meets Mark Sedwill, head of the civil service, in 10 Downing Street after being appointed prime minister

This ‘can do’ optimism may make good TV but belies a multiplicity of challenges the government faces that makes Boris’s stated goals unattainable. If Boris was sincere about getting through the Brexit impasse, he has to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement or pursue a no-deal Brexit. On both counts, he will fail. The EU has repeatedly said it is not willing to reopen the withdrawal agreement, particularly the now vexed issue of the Irish backstop. Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief negotiator said plainly on Thursday that the new British Prime Minister’s demands were “unacceptable”. Theresa May had attempted to renegotiate the backstop during her dismal final year, but the EU remained intransigent, leading to three failed attempts to pass her withdrawal agreement through the Commons. Boris knows full well, a change of tone is not going to make any difference. Already Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister has dismissed his aims, pointedly saying “Confidence and enthusiasm is not a substitute for a European policy.” Despite this, the Prime Minister like his predecessor will knowingly pursue what he fully recognises to be a futile renegotiation.

The second big challenge Johnson faces is parliamentary arithmetic. Johnson has little space to force through a no-deal Brexit. With a working majority of three (that may soon become two), Parliament will block any attempt to leave without an agreement. Without a withdrawal agreement in place, the default option is to leave the EU on the 31st October without a deal. This would mean the rules of trade with Europe would fall back on World Trade Organisation rules, including, for example, high tariffs on cars and agriculture and customs checks at Britain’s ports. This is seen by most, except ardent Brexiteers, a recipe for economic disaster. It would disincentivise trade with EU countries, impede the flow of goods and disrupt supply-chains. The EU Customs Union enables manufacturing industries in the UK to receive components ‘just-in-time’ from 27 countries when required.

Boris may have temporarily brought smiles to the faces of Conservative MP’s, but this masks great unease on the backbenches. The so-called ‘Gaukeward squad’ of Tory MPs, a group that may number around 50 are ready to stop a disastrous no-deal.

And Boris knows this. The next three months will see the same manufactured dispute, a repetition of the past three years. Theresa May had pursued an evidently failed strategy because she wanted to frustrate Brexit. Her public declarations of “no deal is better than a bad deal” and her many speeches outlining her resolve came to nothing, by the end she was ready to support a referendum. However for Johnson, the aim seems to be to prepare for a general election when Parliament denies him his no-deal and forces a further extension with the EU. This will then allow him to go to the country with a manifesto promising a no-deal Brexit if re-elected. This strategy is full of risks, he knows the country and his party is deeply divided and the likelihood is that an election would further these rifts. Even if he enters a pact with the Brexit Party, to ensure working class seats and to prevent a splitting of the Brexit vote, it is unlikely any new Parliament will secure for his party a working majority. Another hung Parliament is doubtful to assure a no-deal Brexit.

The options seem limited. Boris, of course, is no die-hard Brexiteer. As Mayor of London he railed against Euroscepticism. Allying with Vote Leave was more a tactic, rather than based upon any long-held principles. A year before he campaigned for leave, he had written what was described as a “pro-European” letter after the passing of Leon Brittan, a life-long pro-European. However, Boris is an Atlanticist and encouraging Brexit has become a central policy of the Trump administration. Since the early 1970’s, Britain’s foreign policy has been premised on the twin aims of remaining at the heart of Europe and to act as a bridge with the world’s only superpower. This has given Britain inordinate influence in international affairs. American policy until Trump came to power, was to encourage Britain’s place in Europe, in large part to prevent Europe from becoming a regional superstate. This is why Barack Obama intervened in the 2016 referendum, imploring Brits to vote against Brexit. The Trump administration, however, finds this policy naïve. It sees a divided Europe can be achievable through encouraging schisms, secessionist movements, sponsoring the European right-wing, bolstering anti-liberal governments in Hungary, Italy and Poland and turning a blind eye to Russian meddling. The Trump administration sees Brexit to be part of this wrecking campaign, hence Trump’s love for Farage and now Boris, hailing him a great leader who will “get it done.” To encourage “Britain Trump”, he announced yesterday that a trade deal with the UK is underway and could lead to “three to four five times” more trade suggesting “we were impeded by the European Union”.

Beyond Brexit, the American administration is looking past the liberal order it created in 1945 and solidified after the fall of the Soviet Union. Globalisation is making way for nationalism, and the USA is the chief architect of this project. Britain’s fractured establishment reflected by the real divisions within the Conservative Party is attempting to navigate this new world, hoping, as it has been doing for decades that it can reverse its managed decline.

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