/Brexit: Will Boris or Won’t He?

Brexit: Will Boris or Won’t He?

ConservativeHome declared yesterday that their survey of Tory Party members finds that Boris Johnson has already won the leadership contest. He’s also embraced the proud UK leadership practice of promoting Brexit unicorns. A few examples:

The EU will blink with him when it didn’t with Theresa May because Johnson serious about being willing to exit, declaring the odds of no deal as “a million to one”.

The EU will give the UK what Johnson’s allies call a standstill, as in a transition period, just because the UK needs one. The UK has asked and has been firmly told no, that the only way to get a transition period is to approve the Withdrawal Agreement.

The cost of a crash out is “vanishingly inexpensive if you prepare”

As the campaign has progressed, Johnson has become firmer in his commitment to delivering on October 31. This week on BBC Talk Radio, he said:

So we are getting ready to come out on October the 31st. Come what may . . . Do or die. Come what may.

However, BoJo being BoJo means he’s not necessarily committed to anything.

The Financial Times contends tonight that Johnson didn’t spend all these years scheming to become Prime Minister to preside over a crisis, even though the article starts by depicting Johnson as worried about the wrath of Tory Party members if he fails to deliver their cherished Brexit. Johnson has also been saying how much he wants to stay friends with the EU even as he is insisting the divorce is on.

However, the pink paper argues that what Johnson wants is an orderly exit and he seems to be pinning his hopes on getting enough changes to May’s deal to get Parliament to swallow it. Recall that even some of the Ultras were getting a bit wobbly in early 2019. But the Financial Times gives the impression the EU might relent, when it has spoken with one voice that the Withdrawal Agreement that May negotiated is the only deal on offer.

Having said that, there is one change the EU would accept, which would be to have what has informally been called a “sea border,” meaning having Northern Ireland effectively stay in the EU as far as trade matters were concerned (where you draw the jurisdictional lines would be thorny). But that’s been seen as impossible due to the opposition of the DUP, the Government’s minority partner.

So the best indicator on what the incoming Prime Minister intends will be his actions.

The Guardian suggested yesterday that Johnson would need to launch a European tour, pronto, to persuade leaders to accept his point of view and specifically, to allow him to do what they’ve dismissed repeatedly, which is to cherry pick the Withdrawal Agreement. It’s a no-brainer that the EU won’t relent (and there is the interesting question of how long it will take Johnson to get that message).

But Johnson needs to put up a good show, particularly since the UK press obligingly ran all sorts of ridiculous “a deal is nigh” stories leaked by No. 10 in May’s day that proved to be hogwash. Whether Boris believes his own sales talk or not, he needs the appearance of momentum.

Having said that, Johnson is widely disliked in the EU, and some are not trying hard to hide their antipathy. That could make it difficult for Johnson to sell the notion that his charm offensive might work. For instance, from the Telegraph:

Ursula von der Leyen, the woman nominated as the new president of the European Commission, has warned the next prime minister of Britain over the “tone and attitude” of Brexit. Mrs von der Leyen said that a courteous Brexit was vital because it would set the template for the future UK-EU relationship in what will be widely interpreted as a swipe at Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, the favourite to succeed Theresa May. In her first public words on Brexit since her nomination by EU leaders after a July 2 summit, she said, “We all know that we want you to Remain but I know how facts are. I hope for a good development. But in case we’re going to have a Brexit, I’m convinced it is crucial how the tone and attitude is with which Brexit happens because Brexit is not the end of something, Brexit is the beginning of future relations.” Brussels has still not forgiven Mr Johnson for comparing the EU to Nazi Germany or likening the Brexit negotiations to Third Reich “punishment beatings”. Jeremy Hunt, the other Tory leadership contender, was forced to apologise after likening the EU to a Soviet gulag.

Von der Leyen happens to be right: unless the UK revokes Article 50, it will be negotiating Brexit for years, even in the event of a crash out, because it will need a new trade and services deal and those take a great deal of time to negotiate. The comparatively clean EU-Canada pact took seven years. Any UK agreement will have a significant services component, and services deals are more tortuous than trade deals.

A second indicator will be how the new Government deals with Parliament. I have to confess I’ve been simultaneously amused and disappointed by the uproar over the idea that the Government might prorogue Parliament so as to force a crash out. What about default don’t you understand?1

The reality is that Parliament would have to push a car uphill to force a Prime Minister to seek an extension or revoke Article 50. It would take legislation; mere motions won’t cut it.

And all you have to do is look at the calendar. Under a normal schedule, the Commons is barely in session before the EU Council meeting of October 17-18. It returns from summer recess on September 3, and historically is in session only a week before going on a “conference” recess for three weeks, which would therefore go until early October.

Now the EU Council would probably obligingly as before ready itself for an emergency session right before the October 31 drop dead date. Even so, under a normal schedule, Parliament would be sitting for only four weeks or so while the Government is up to its Brexit machinations. Of course, it does not take much time to put a motion of no confidence, but anything more complicated would seem to be a tall order in this short time period. Look at how much effort it took to pass mere handwaving motions during May’s tenure (although Parliament did eventually manage to wrest control of the Brexit business scheduling from her).

And the Government controls Parliamentary time. Readers please pipe up, but I assume this also implies that it would be hard or impossible for Parliament, as opposed to the Government, to keep itself in session during its normal recess periods.

So having Parliament all worked up about the possibility of being prorogued seems like a very useful diversion. Moreover, the fact that all Brexit nemesis Dominic Grieve was able to do was to raise the bar for cashiering Parliament, by requiring fortnightly updates on Northern Ireland.

One wild card is that the rebel Tories really might man up (Johnson waved off claims that there were 30 of them) and/or the Ultras might lose their nerve. Chris Grey thinks the latter might be taking place:

It is notable – given he is not only pro-Brexit but also fiercely Atlanticist – that Liam Fox has recently become critical of no-deal Brexit, and has also this week been highly supportive of Darroch. He has thus been the target of considerable criticism from the hardliners such as Steve Baker. I also notice that Michael Gove seems rather silent since dropping out of the leadership contest during which he was slated for not being a real Brexiter – despite his leading role in the Leave campaign.

These are only straws in the wind – and no high profile Brexiter has yet recanted – but it occurs to me that some, at least, are beginning to see the dangers of reaping the whirlwind of the wind they have sown.

The Financial Times also gave a new angle on why a crash out would be bad: October is a worse time than March:

A leaked memo prepared by [Brexit secretary] Mr [Steve] Barclay in May suggested it would take six to eight months of engagement with the pharmaceutical industry — well beyond the Halloween deadline — “to ensure adequate arrangements are in place to build stockpiles of medicines by October 31”. It estimated four to five months alone would be needed to prepare traders for new red tape at the border….

In practical terms stockpiling goods in warehouses was just about manageable in March but it will be much more difficult in the autumn, when companies are already building up for the Christmas shopping season, Black Friday sales and potential weather disruption.

According to Savills, the property agency, the estimated vacancy rate for warehouses of more than 100,000 square feet nationwide in the second quarter of the year is 6.8 per cent. In the “inner M25” Greater London area the vacancy rate has fallen to just 2.2 per cent. Mike Coupe, chief executive of Sainsbury’s, says the October 31 deadline is “not far off the worst day possible” for retailers.

Politicians can become victims of their personal mythology. And whether he realizes it or not, the tight time table in combination with his gung-ho messaging means Johnson has tied himself on the Brexit train track.

1 This is what triggered me, a quote from Grieve in the Guardian:

Obviously, if a prime minister can persuade the House of Commons that a no-deal Brexit is a good idea, he’s fully within his rights to do it. But attempts to ratchet no-deal through, against the majority wishes of the House of Commons, should not happen and, in my view, we can put in place the necessary provisions to make sure it doesn’t.

Ahem, Parliament already voted for Brexit in the form of authorizing the Prime Minister to send in the Article 50 notice. The Institute of Government describes how Parliament can’t block a PM set on no deal from going down that path, absent a successful vote of no confidence (and even then, it points out the Prime Minister would need to ask for an extension, which a bloody-minded PM might refuse to do). For instance:

But if a new prime minister is set on no deal, then they have no need for further ‘meaningful votes’. That denies MPs an opportunity to vote to take control of the timetable again.

And the no deal provision in the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 – which would have required the Government to hold a vote in the Commons if no agreement had been reached with the EU by 21 January – has long expired.

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