Johnson and ‘no deal’ Brexit

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

epa08690239 British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs), London, Britain, 23 September 2020. Mr Johnson has announced new measures to combat a rising number of coronavirus cases in the UK. EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER

Boris Johnson’s large majority has not made him immune from the demands of the Eurosceptic European Research Group in his party, argues Brendan Donnelly, warning that that makes a ‘no deal’ scenario more likely.

Brendan Donnelly is the director of the Federal Trust and a former British Member of the European Parliament.

One of the more optimistic interpretations of Boris Johnson’s crushing victory in the General Election last year was that it would make it easier for him to negotiate rapidly and effectively with the European Union in 2020.

His large majority, it was hoped, would allow him to ignore the most extreme demands from the most extreme of his backbenchers in the European Research Group (ERG).

The government’s willingness, announced brazenly in the House of Commons on 8 September by Sir Brandon Lewis, illegally to break the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) with the EU, is a corrective to such illusions.

The ERG has never gone away. Its ideas and attitudes have long since become those of the vast majority of the active members of the Conservative Party.

It would be impossible for Boris Johnson, even if he wished to, to take disciplinary action against the ERG’s members in the same way as he did last year against Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve and other pro-Europeans. The ERG and its ideas enjoy limitless access to the columns of the newspapers read by Conservatives.

Major television channels give substantial coverage and credibility to such views and their proponents. Even more importantly, the Conservative Parliamentary Party contains today only a handful of uncowed MPs who would have the conviction and confidence to take any effective stand against the policies of the ERG.

Central among these is the repudiation or at least revision of the Withdrawal Agreement which was according to Johnson himself so decisive an element of the last General Election. The admission of Sir Brandon that the government was prepared to break international law is a clear and reprehensible first response to mounting ERG pressure.

Why did the ERG accept the Withdrawal Agreement?

It was surprising to some observers that Boris Johnson was able last year to persuade the most implacable Eurosceptics in his Party that they should accept the Withdrawal Agreement he had negotiated. It was after all, essentially the Agreement negotiated by the despised Theresa May, with the addition of a regulatory and customs frontier in the Irish Sea.

Even on a superficial reading it could be seen that this Agreement represented a significant segmentation of the UK’s internal market and allowed important scope for legal intervention by the European Union in the economic life of Northern Ireland.

It might have been expected that these features of the Agreement would have been wholly unacceptable to many Conservative MPs.

It is now clear that such reservations were overcome by disingenuous assurances from Conservative Ministers that the Withdrawal Agreement could and would be rapidly superseded by a generously wide-ranging new EU/UK trade agreement, rendering the WA a dead letter.

It was part of the shared mythology between Johnson and the ERG that Theresa May had been a uniquely weak negotiator with the EU and a more robust Johnsonian approach in 2020 would ensure a favourable outcome to the negotiations.

It was on this basis that many Conservative MPs swallowed their objections and loyally supported Johnson’s effusive advocacy of his “oven-ready deal.” In giving such assurances to the ERG, Johnson was certainly reckless, as they were naïve and unprincipled in accepting them.

But little lies have long legs, and Johnson is now being confronted with the consequences of his nonchalant undertakings at the turn of the year.

Does Johnson want a “deal?

Much ink has been expended in recent days as to whether the Prime Minister and his government are resigned to, or actively want, or are trying to avoid a “no deal” Brexit. There are certainly differing views within the government.

But even as far as Johnson himself is concerned, it is probably difficult to attribute to him any clear-cut position.  He must be aware of the economic dislocation a “no deal” Brexit would cause and the benefit of an agreement with the EU which he could present as a diplomatic triumph.

On the other hand, any realistically achievable agreement is unlikely this time to pass muster with the ERG and its sympathisers. The EU will not grant the UK favoured access to its own large market without sovereignty-constraining guarantees from London; and it will insist that the WA remains in force.

Johnson knows his position is much weaker now than a year ago. If he can be depicted by his opponents within the Conservative Party as having made unacceptable concessions to the EU to avoid “no deal,” his tenure of office will be short indeed.

At least two senior Cabinet Ministers in Gove and Sunak are already emerging as favoured candidates, both of whom ironically are said to be leaning away from a “no-deal” outcome.

Whether this attitude of the two potential challengers would persist if Johnson’s position were under threat as a result of the “deal” he had negotiated with the EU must be questionable. In the past twenty-five years the trend of the Conservative Party has been to elect ever more Eurosceptic leaders.

Which way will Johnson jump?

Johnson finds himself in a labyrinth within his Party from which he will find it difficult to escape. The easiest solution for him in the short term is that of “no deal.” Little in Johnson’s career suggests that he operates politically in anything other than the short term.

The only long term goal to which he has shown any tenacious commitment is to become Prime Minister.  As ever since 2016, the Brexit negotiations have been taking place and will continue to take place essentially within the Conservative Party, not between the EU and the UK.

The EU is often a frustrated onlooker. The patience of the EU has been commendable since 2016. There must however come a point where that patience runs out and we may well be nearing it.

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