Boris Johnson’s appointment of a cabinet full of Brexit hardliners will be alarming for anybody concerned about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, and the stewardship of the UK’s economy and public services. But it’s not the whole story. In practice, the appearance of a hardline stance on EU withdrawal by a Johnson government may be the very thing that unlocks the possibility of avoiding a chaotic break with the continent.
We saw the worst and best of Johnson on his first day in office. The appointment of people with highly reactionary views, or those who have shown contempt for both Britain’s democratic system and national security laws, purely because it suits immediate political interests, paints a disturbing picture of the character of Johnson’s premiership.
At the same time, the assembly of Team Boris may just have demonstrated—no less disturbingly, perhaps—Johnson’s supreme skills as a political operator.
It’s generally believed that Johnson is not being entirely truthful about his Brexit plans. Conventional wisdom suggests that he will simply rebrand Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement—which he did eventually vote for—and force it through parliament with sheer bravado.
But this scenario understates the problem of the Irish border backstop designed to kick in if alternatives to a hard border on the island of Ireland cannot be found. Without Labour’s support, there will still be enough true-believing Brexiters on the Conservative backbenches to block any deal containing May’s hated backstop—even ministerial resignations would be likely. But the EU will not countenance anything resembling May’s deal without a backstop-like mechanism for the Irish border.
In Johnson’s cunning plan, however, the backstop is likely to become the first stop. I think he will soon signal his willingness for Britain to remain in both the single market and customs union as part of a lengthy transitional period—possibly as long as five years—before a UK-EU free trade deal is agreed. Short of permanent single market membership via the European Economic Area—which the EU will never offer to Britain—this would represent the softest possible Brexit.
All he requires from the EU is a commitment to this timetable, in return for ongoing budget contributions for several years, and of course payment of the divorce settlement when the UK finally departs from the single market and customs union.
This doesn’t fully alleviate the need for something like the backstop—since even five years may not be enough time to agree a trade deal—but with May’s 21-month “implementation period” now irrelevant, it starts to feel purely hypothetical.
Crucially, Britain will still leave the EU in a formal sense on October 31, 2019, relinquishing all political representation. With ironic inevitability, if it leaves with a deal involving a lengthy transition, Britain will become the rule-taking “vassal state” of which Johnson once warned. An elongated Brexit will be deemed a price worth paying for an irrevocable Brexit.
Johnson’s masterstroke is to tie the key figures of the Leave campaign now in his cabinet to this strategy, while effectively conceding the demands of Tory Remainers. The former know this might be their last chance to secure Brexit, and the latter know this might be their last chance to avoid no deal.
We can then expect a general election to be called, for early November or sooner if the new withdrawal process has been agreed. Johnson’s minority government cannot possibly function beyond Brexit with so many ousted ministers on the backbenches. However, whether he wins a workable majority or not, I also expect the complexion of his government to change dramatically after this point, with the return of senior Remainers such as Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark, and the promotion of people like Johnson’s brother Jo.
It would be foolish to discount the continuing possibility of a no-deal Brexit, not least because Johnson will prove himself incompetent and indifferent, in equal measure, when it comes to delivering his plan in practice. While his political strategy depends on stuffing his cabinet with hardliners, their ideological myopia renders them ill-suited to the task of managing a major constitutional upheaval, yet perversely over-confident in their ability to do so.
Even the best laid plans often go wrong. And best laid plans, these are not.
Yet it’s worth remembering that nobody on the Leave side in 2016 envisaged a no-deal Brexit. It was May herself who, almost by accident, raised this possibility in her 2017 Lancaster House speech. May quickly backed away from the notion of leaving without a withdrawal agreement, yet accepting the prospect nevertheless became a test of purity among the Brexiters.
The Johnson government will now ramp up planning for a no-deal Brexit, but the fact that this job has been handed to Michael Gove—who thwarted Johnson’s leadership ambitions in 2016—is highly revealing. If we listen only to Johnson’s rhetoric, we could deduce he has appointed Gove to a significant and indeed pivotal role. In practice, it will be a highly demanding job, but one which could end up being rather marginal to the main thrust of the Johnson government’s plans.
The fate of Britain’s position on immigration is perhaps the most fascinating element of the multi-dimensional debacle. Johnson’s deal is likely to see free movement continue—certainly for several years, and perhaps indefinitely. Do not be fooled by references to an Australia-style points-based system, designed only to reassure Tory voters but practically meaningless. Johnson and the “Britannia Unchained” brigade of free marketeers are almost unabashedly pro-immigration.
But we tend to underestimate how much May’s insistence on ending free movement hamstrung her premiership. As such, if he accepts free movement, Johnson risks handing Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party a new stick with which to attack his strategy. This is all the more reason for an early election, before the immigration policy implications of Johnson’s approach become clear among the wider electorate.
This article was co-published with the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.