Boris Johnson has got off to a good start. His cabinet reshuffle was swift and decisive and will restore, for now, collective cabinet responsibility that became so degraded in Theresa May’s tenure as prime minister.
Chairing his first cabinet meeting, he demanded and received in front of the assembled cameras, in Trump style, a loyalty oath to Brexit by 31 October, ‘do or die’, from the members of his ruthlessly selected government. He then gave a bravado performance at the despatch box in the House of Commons – answering 129 questions with only one minor slip-up and tub-thumping through his explanation of how he will make Britain ‘the greatest place on earth’ (with further echoes of President Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan).
He gives the impression of a prime minister basking in the glow of a successfully completed general election and commanding a healthy parliamentary majority. In reality, the fact that he has a minuscule majority of two (potentially falling to one on 1 August if the Conservative candidate loses the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election) means Thursday was likely the apogee of his political power, for the near term at least.
But, if he can sustain his current political velocity through the first few weeks of his premiership, it is possible that he will make himself the master of his political destiny, rather than succumb to the humiliation of being one of Britain’s shortest-lived prime ministers, as his critics fervently hope.
The challenges he faces are indeed daunting: the EU27 are refusing to yield and are all the less likely to do so for a person many of them they regard as an opportunist populist, precisely the type of leader they do not want to encourage across continental Europe.
His wafer-thin majority is compounded by the menacing presence of heavy-hitting opponents to No Deal Brexit on his own back benches: Philip Hammond, David Lidington, Justine Greening, Greg Clark, Rory Stewart, Dominic Grieve. Who knows where the harshly-treated Jeremy Hunt and, for that matter, Penny Mordaunt might stand as the stakes rise in the autumn?
But Boris Johnson may actually have a plan; or, to put it another way, a politically possible way forward, whether he fully perceives it yet or not. He can challenge Parliament to back a No Deal Brexit or, if that fails, secure a mandate for that outcome by calling a general election.
Johnson’s talk of re-negotiating the withdrawal agreement with the EU27 is a charade. It is not impossible for the EU to make a meaningful concession on the Irish backstop, if the Irish government were to give the green light, which it might if it felt Johnson was deadly serious about No Deal Brexit. More likely, however, they won’t – and even if they wanted to, there would not be enough time to stitch together a compromise ahead of the EU Council on 17–18 October or to pass it through Parliament by 31 October.
More importantly, I do not see how an EU27 climbdown on the backstop would be enough for him, as it would just reveal two other red lines.
First, he is adamantly opposed to the withdrawal agreement’s ‘transition period’. Under this arrangement, the UK would be bound into the EU Customs Union and Single Market regulations through the end of 2020 while the two sides tried to complete the negotiation on the future relationship. Britain would be subject through this period to new EU laws and trade measures and agreements, but with no say in their drafting and implementation. Back in November 2018, Johnson called this ‘vassal status stuff’, and it would severely constrain his deregulating, free trade agenda.
Second, even if he were to accept the transition period, Britain would then have to negotiate the future relationship having already committed to an over £30 billion financial settlement that Theresa May agreed as part of her deal. Like many Conservative and Labour politicians, Johnson has railed against the loss of leverage this entails for the UK during the most critical phase of the negotiation.
These considerations militate further for a No Deal Brexit on 31 October. By engineering or recognizing an unbreachable standoff over the backstop in September, Johnson could forewarn the EU that Britain will not request a further extension of the Article 50 process and indeed leave on 31 October. He could try to negotiate a standstill arrangement for three or so months after that date in order to give the UK time to put in place minimum additional procedures to avoid economic disruption at the borders, in financial markets and in other UK–EU interactions. At the same time, Johnson’s government would want to start negotiating the future trading and security relationship.
Of course, the EU may well refuse to be part of such a damage-limitation exercise, but they would have to develop some type of response to Johnson’s approach.
Regardless of the EU’s response, once MPs realized that this ‘negotiated no deal’ was Johnson’s preferred route, they might find a way to block it. In that case, Johnson would call a general election (enabled by Labour support), and the EU27 would likely grant an extension to Article 50 for this purpose. The Conservatives under Johnson would campaign to leave the EU immediately, but with a post-Brexit standstill arrangement and a plan to begin negotiating a free trade agreement immediately thereafter. Labour would probably have to campaign for a second referendum and to remain.
By blaming the EU for having ‘refused to negotiate’ and for ‘forcing’ Britain to leave the EU (the terms Johnson trailed in his first remarks in front of 10 Downing Street on Wednesday), and by doubling down on his One Nation Conservative vision, he would hope to rally the undecideds to the Conservative side. By campaigning for No Deal, and with Dominic Cummings at his side, he would hope to neutralize the Brexit Party and the need to strike a formal agreement with Nigel Farage.
A plan that might work
Why might this work? First, the Labour opposition appears endlessly divided over allegations of anti-Semitism and is still struggling to articulate a credible position on Brexit. A YouGov survey this week shows significantly more voters pick Boris Johnson over Jeremy Corbyn (38% to 20%) when asked who would make the best British prime minister, though ‘Don’t Know’ remains the most popular response. At present, there are no clear signs of Labour bridging its internal political divides.
Second, Johnson leads a Conservative parliamentary party exhausted by three years of failed efforts to deliver Brexit and desperate not to hand the keys to Downing Street to Corbyn. The fact that 160 members of the party backed Boris Johnson in the final parliamentary vote – and that staunch Remainers and former ‘no-to-No-Dealers’ like Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan, Matt Hancock and Boris’s brother Jo Johnson have signed the Brexit loyalty oath – reveals the extent to which Conservatives believe they must rally together and avoid the deep damage the party would suffer if they prove incapable of delivering Brexit.
Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party are trying to steer the country away from a political crisis of their own making. At some level, much of the public recognises this. But a majority will probably tolerate it providing he enables the country to escape the Brexit loop and the outcome is not too painful. His style of politics – declarative and confrontational, hogging the news cycle - may also buy him the space he needs. The plan might just work.
If his plans are blocked, however, by the EU, Parliament, or the public in an election, or if the economy nosedives amid the uncertainties of a No Deal Brexit, there will be no patience or tribal political loyalty. British politics will fragment, not only at Boris Johnson’s expense, but at the expense of Britain’s future political stability.