August is typically the month when Westminster goes silent and lawmakers go on holiday, leaving reporters to fall back on stories about the holiday plans of the royal family. But this summer, with the Brexit date approaching fast, has been much more hectic.
Newly minted Prime Minister Boris Johnson has kept away from the national TV screens and airwaves – instead making several policy announcements on Facebook – but he has spent the summer in full campaign mode.
This week has seen the Johnson government’s first co-ordinated salvo: trips to key European capitals and a missive to Brussels as part of his plan to bluff the EU into scrapping the Irish backstop, dangling the threat of a no-deal Brexit if the bloc refuses to budge.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s government has already shown itself to be far more aggressive than Theresa May’s team.
On Monday, Home Secretary Priti Patel confirmed plans for border restrictions to be imposed immediately if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, while Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay announced that UK civil servants will stop attending most EU meetings from September 1 and the UK’s vote delegated to the Finnish presidency.
Whatever the wisdom of putting the fear into the 3.4 million EU nationals living in the UK, and of empty-chairing talks with allies, these moves signify that the Johnson government is not all talk.
In his letter to European Council boss Donald Tusk, Johnson described the Irish backstop, the main sticking point throughout the Brexit negotiations, as “anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state”, and stated that it must be scrapped.
The letter, meant primarily for domestic consumption, offered no specifics on what the “alternative arrangements” to replace the backstop should be. Though the reaction in Brussels was largely dismissive, Johnson’s ministers and supporters in the press have been quick to portray it as an offer to compromise, which the intransigent EU has rejected.
Onus on Johnson to find viable alternatives
Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel have been wiser to this tactic. Both said that EU leaders are prepared to listen but made it clear that the onus is on Johnson’s government to prepare detailed and viable proposals, sooner rather than later. “No one is going to wait until October 31 to find the right solution,” Macron warned.
The backstop alternatives are set to be based on the recommendations made in a 272-page report by the Alternative Arrangements Commission, co-chaired by Conservative MPs Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands and funded by Prosperity UK, an organisation founded by Jonathan Hill, the former EU financial services commissioner, and hedge fund boss Paul Marshall.
Its working group is led by Shankar Singham, a former adviser to International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, and a popular figure among Brexiteers.
Mrs May and her EU adviser Olly Robbins were sceptical of the idea that technology could obviate the need for a backstop, half-heartedly setting up a couple of their own ‘alternative arrangements’ working groups.
But it would be a mistake to think that a new compromise on the Irish backstop would be enough to overturn the 58 MP majority that rejected the Withdrawal Agreement for the third time in May and avoid a no-deal.
While Johnson told Macron on Thursday that he “of course, wants to do a deal”, many hard Brexiteer Tories do not. Many in the European Research Group of Conservative MPs actively desire a no-deal scenario.
Others, such as former Brexit Secretary David Davis, say Johnson should re-negotiate sunset clauses on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and tie payment of the €39 billion budget settlement to progress on a new trade deal.
Fragile majority in parliament
Although Johnson has stated publicly that he will not call an election, having a working majority of a single seat means that this decision is not entirely in his hands.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised to table a no-confidence in the first week of September when UK lawmakers return to the House of Commons. If Johnson loses the vote, as a last resort, he seems prepared to take his chances with a ‘People vs Parliament’ campaign.
Opposition parties have spent August doing their own number crunching. The Liberal Democrats, who continue to poll strongly, are open to the prospect of a national unity government, although nobody can agree on who should lead it.
Labour say it should be Corbyn, but they also say they will not sit in a government with the ‘Tory’ Scottish National Party.
November 1, the first day of Brexit Britain’s life outside the EU, has been earmarked by Johnson’s team as a good date for a general election. Opinion polls since he replaced Theresa May in 10 Downing Street in July have tended to show a consistent, albeit not decisive, lead for his Conservative party.
If Johnson’s ministers do not offer a workable alternative to the Irish backstop that would mean “that the problem is deeper, more political – a British political problem,” Macron told reporters on Thursday.
In this scenario, “it would be up to the prime minister to make a choice,” the French president added. The indications are that Johnson will choose to go all in and wage everything on an election to deliver Brexit by any means necessary.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]