Boris Johnson’s Non-Strategy for a No Deal Brexit
Scott Lucas (University of Birmingham)
To state the obvious and essential point, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his senior Ministers and advisors are dedicating themselves to a No Deal Brexit crash-out from the European Union on 31 October. Johnson still makes noises about wanting a deal, but they are token utterances. There are multiple tells: the orders by top advisor Dominic Cummings for Whitehall to devote all efforts to No Deal departure in two months’ time; the proroguing Parliament for five weeks to prevent any attempt to block No Deal; and the Prime Minister’s grandiose if empty declaration of an English “Golden Age” as soon as it cuts itself off from the Continent.
The biggest tell is Johnson’s ultimatum to the European Union to give up the security of the Irish backstop in any deal. Assuming the Prime Minister has a modicum of intelligence to reach his position, he – like almost everyone in Whitehall – knows that the EU will not accede. Doing so would sacrifice the interests of one country remaining in the EU for one which is leaving. Thus French President Emmanuel Macron’s polite but firm statement to Johnson of an “indispensable” backstop and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s challenge that London has 30 days to come up with an alternative.
Just before he met Merkel in August, Johnson sent a fairy-tale letter to European Council President Donald Tusk which included sweeping assurances of “alternative arrangements”. But again, if the Prime Minister has a shred of reality behind the bluster, he knows that this is empty posture: the working paper he cites sets a three-year window for implementation of any arrangements.
So here’s the big reveal. The strategy holding together Johnson’s tactics? There is no strategy.
The Political Tactics
The foremost objective of the tactics is political: not just a No Deal, but Johnson posing as the wannabe-Churchill ruling the UK after the crash-out. On Brexit Referendum Day in June 2016, Johnson was widely expected to become Prime Minister as soon as the shock result was confirmed. But on the morning after, when he should have been grasping the mantle, he scurried away from reporters and looked like a rabbit in the headlights at a press conference alongside fellow Leaver Michael Gove.
More than three years later, Johnson has the office that he gave away that morning. But merely confirming his predecessor Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU – even if that could get past hard-Brexit Conservative MPs – gives Boris nothing as achievement. That can only come with the historic No Deal breakaway, even if any “victory” is Pyrrhic.
So Johnson’s effort is devoted not as much to managing the departure as to ensure his personal political survival. That likely means, given the economic shock that will soon be felt, to a quick General Election to lock in a five-year term. His inner circle have made the most of the August recess to put out “magic money tree” announcements – funds for more police officers, for school spending, for increased public sector pay – accompanying Johnson’s chummy appearances at a police training center and alongside a celebrity chef in a hospital. The gamble, possibly wrapped up with a bow in an October budget, is that the vote happens before the public realises the pledges can’t be fulfilled.
Then there is the Holy Grail of No Deal, the “US-UK trade deal”. Johnson, aided and abetted by the Trump Administration that helped put him into 10 Downing Street, is shamelessly declaring that a deal will magically come soon after 31 October.
Never mind that, in the best of circumstances, a trade deal takes two to four years to negotiate and is more likely to require four to six. (The European Union’s CETA deal with Canada required five years of discussions and two-year ratification period. The EU-Japan deal, the largest in the world, needed six years of talks and a year’s ratification.) Never mind that the US is likely to demand concessions from the UK in areas such as access for private companies to public services such as the National Health Service, a loosening of British health and safety standards, and changes to the UK’s financial and services sectors. Never mind because all that matters is the illusion of the deal for the reality of No Deal and a General Election.
Only a fool would predict the outcome, given the volatility of the voting public, the kaleidoscope of multiple opposition parties, and the UK’s arcane first-past-the-post electoral system. What is easier to read is the economic side of the equation.
Damn The Consequences
Perhaps the most important line in Johnson’s first Prime Ministerial speech was his jabbing at “the doubters, the doomsayers, the gloomsters”. Translation: the Emperor has got no clothes when it comes to economic tactics – but don’t tell him that. The consensus among economists, inside and outside Government, is that a No Deal Brexit means – conservatively – at least a 9% relative drop in GDP in the next 15 years. In July, the Office of Budget Responsibility forecast an absolute loss of 3% in GDP in 2020-21. There would be a £30 billion per year black hole in Government budget, overwhelming Boris’s magic money tree, and an addition of 12% of GDP onto national debt by 2023.
After setting out these grim statistics, the OBR added that this was a “relatively benign” scenario, “compared to some”.
Earlier in August, the status report for the Government’s No Deal preparations, Operation Yellowhammer, set out the immediate shock. With disrupted and broken supply chains, there will be shortages of food and medicine and accompanying price rises. Lorries will wait for days at ports. Social care and local services will be under threat. Two fuel refineries will shut. Police resources will be stretched to deal with disruptions and protests. The Government’s reaction? This was all doubters and doomsayers – and former Ministers trying to undermine the UK’s negotiating position with the EU.
This lack of economic tactics is easy to read because it has been the case since 2016. After a referendum which featured Leave’s lies about the UK’s economic position vis-a-vis Brussels – £350 million per week recouped for the National Health Service! – hard Brexit-ers dismissed the near-unanimity of economic forecasts as Project Fear. They derided experts, said civil servants were devious “Remoaners”, and even berated Bank of England head Mark Carney. As Johnson insisted in his inaugural speech in front of 10 Downing Street, “The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts,” converting analysts into punters at the local bookmakers.
But there is a vital difference between the Emperor’s No Clothes of 2016 and the 2019 line. Today there is no time left for myth and diversion, for pseudo-Churchillian rhetoric and posturing.
For there is no strategy. On 31 October, the Emperor has no Plan B.
The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog
Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the Department of Political Science and International Studies of the University of Birmingham, where he is also Professor of American Studies