That Boris Johnson has appointed a cabinet full of Brexit hardliners and ‘Britannia Unchained’ fanatics will be alarming for anybody concerned about the possibility of a no deal Brexit – and indeed the stewardship of our economy and public services. But it is 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 Boris Johnson on his first day in office. The appointment of people with highly reactionary views, or people who have shown contempt for both Britain’s democratic system and national security, purely because it suits his 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 is generally understood that Johnson is not being entirely truthful about his Brexit plans. Conventional wisdom suggests that he will simply rebrand May’s withdrawal agreement – which he did eventually vote for – and force it through Parliament with sheer bravado. But this scenario understates the backstop problem: 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. (It should go with saying that 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 becomes the first stop. 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. All he requires from the EU is a commitment to this timetable, in return for ongoing budget contributions for several years, and of course the divorce settlement when single market/customs union departure finally occurs.
This does not 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 forgone, it starts to feel purely hypothetical.
Crucially, Britain will leave the EU in a formal sense on 31 October 2019, relinquishing all political representation. With ironic inevitability, we 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 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, we can 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 Boris’ 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 gang aft agley; and best laid plans, these are not.
Yet it is 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 no deal planning, but the fact that this job has been handed to Michael Gove – who thwarted Johnson’s leadership ambitions three years ago – 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 ends 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 will 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 to reassure Tory voters but practically meaningless: Johnson and the Britannia Unchained brigade in his cabinet are almost unabashedly pro-immigration.
With her steadfast anti-immigration perspective, however, Remainer May had been much closer to preferences of ordinary Leave voters. We tend to underestimate how much her insistence on ending free movement hamstrung May’s premiership – leading her to compromise, for instance, on the independence of British trade policy (via the backstop), which was seen as non-negotiable among elite Brexiters.
As such, by accepting 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.
It is worth reflecting finally on where all this leaves the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn might be tempted to support the Johnson deal. Leaving the EU while staying in the single market and customs union looks suspiciously like Labour’s policy anyway, at least before recent movement towards a firmer pro-Remain position. Corbyn will want to gamble that he – or his successor as leader – will be in Number 10 before the longer-term UK/EU trade deal is signed.
However, the appetite for compromise on Brexit among most Labour MPs and members is increasingly limited – especially so if it means dealing with Boris Johnson. It could well be that Johnson’s deal becomes the wedge that conclusively divides Corbyn and his support base. And insofar as this would further impede Labour’s ability to win a general election, it would greatly assist Johnson in holding off the challenge of the Brexit Party.