Boris’s Brexit trap

By on 02/09/2019
Boris Johnson meets EU leaders including those of France, Germany and the EU president at the G7 on 24 August. Pic by Number 10

Members of the UK’s House of Commons will try this week to prevent new PM Boris Johnson from securing a ‘no deal’ Brexit – but Johnson is a step ahead, and will seek to turn any parliamentary defeat into a general election victory. Matt Ross reports on a crunch week for Brexit

UK politicians are gearing up for what would be the most important and unpredictable general election in decades, as rebel Tory MPs prepare to seize control of the parliamentary timetable and introduce legislation taking the ‘no deal’ Brexit option out of prime minister Boris Johnson’s hands. A Number 10 source has briefed reporters that a defeat in the Commons would be viewed as “an expression of confidence in the government’s negotiating position”, suggesting that Johnson would immediately call a general election.

Following Johnson’s announcement last Wednesday that Parliament would be ‘prorogued’ next week, MPs have just a few days to influence events before they’re sent back to their constituencies – sidelining them until 14 October. A group of 15-20 Conservative backbenchers – their numbers swelled by former ministers sacked by Johnson – are trying to secure Commons time this week, then win opposition parties’ support for a bill that could require Johnson to seek a three-month Brexit extension if no exit deal has passed through the Commons by 19 October. On Monday afternoon, the PM said there are “no circumstances” in which he’d seek a further extension to the 31 October leaving date: a confrontation is looming.

The Tory rebels – many of whom supported former PM Theresa May’s negotiated deal, but are firmly opposed to a ‘no deal’ exit – fear that unless the no deal option is ruled out, the UK is likely to crash out of the EU in two months’ time. Johnson says he wants a deal with the EU, while insisting that it must drop the Northern Ireland backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) negotiated by former PM Theresa May. But on Sunday, former Cabinet secretary and cross-bench peer Lord O’Donnell told Radio 4’s The World This Weekend that any concessions made by EU leaders on the WA will be “lipstick” that won’t “make any meaningful difference” to the backstop proposals – and will thus fail to win over hardline Tory Brexiteers.

Offer Brexiteers no deal, and they’ll take it

So even if Johnson were to proclaim himself satisfied with cosmetic changes agreed to the WA, O’Donnell warned, hard Brexiteers would vote it down – catalysing a no deal exit. “All of those hardline Brexiteers… are going to vote against it, knowing that their ideal outcome is thereby achieved, ie. no deal,” he said.

Unless no deal is ruled out, he added, “we’re setting up a structure which massively incentivises voting against a deal, because the alternative – and it’s the default, remember – is no deal, which [hard Brexiteers] would regard as a clean break.” While the prime minister has claimed that he needs the threat of a no deal exit in order to extract concessions from the EU, O’Donnell argued that the truth is “the complete opposite of what Boris Johnson is saying. Actually, if we don’t take no deal off the table, then no deal is almost certainly what we’ll get”.

Writing in the Spectator, former UK representative to the EU Sir Ivan Rogers argued on Monday that Johnson – who’s talked up the prospects of a trade deal with the USA – is particularly badly placed to secure meaningful concessions on the backstop. “In signalling that he wishes to be free to diverge [from Single Market rules and Customs Union tariffs] far more, and go for a much ‘thinner’, less potentially constraining, Canadian-style Free Trade Agreement, the prime minister must understand that absolutely nothing could do more to convince the EU that the backstop is essential,” he wrote. For the greater the divergence in regulations and tariffs between the EU and Great Britain, the harder it will be to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland; and by keeping Northern Ireland in the Customs Union and subject to key Single Market regulations, the current backstop proposals secure this key EU goal.

Ivan Rogers, former UK rep to the EU: no deal presents “the worst possible outcome for the UK economy and for the public finances.” Pic by Ian Hall

Endless wrangling, but from outside the club

Rogers also warned that while hard Brexiteers champion no deal as finally bringing the Brexit process to an end and providing certainty for businesses and citizens, “it would manifestly do nothing of the sort.”

For following a no deal exit, the UK government would have to start from scratch negotiating a new EU trade relationship – and EU leaders have already said that their first demands would involve reinstating the backstop and agreeing the UK’s financial liabilities. “The reality of ‘no deal’ is that it would leave all the most intractable issues about our future relationship with the EU unresolved, and leave it unclear whether there would even be a subsequent process to resolve them,” Rogers wrote. “The preconditions the 27 [EU members] would set are already obvious and we would during the election campaign have heard repeatedly from the prime minister – indeed, we already have – that he would not accede to any of them. In which case, no trade negotiation will even commence.”

In these circumstances, Rogers noted, businesses would have “no option but to plan on the assumption that there might be no preferential deal for the foreseeable future” – leading to an exodus of jobs and investment, “the worst possible outcome for the UK economy and for the public finances.”

The plan behind the plan

The UK prime minister must be aware of these realities. Even under May’s Withdrawal Agreement, wrangling with EU negotiators was set to persist for many years. And as former HM Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nick Macpherson tweeted on Friday: “The sad fact is the ‘cleaner’ the break the greater the certainty that future governments will be wrestling with its consequences well into the 2030s”.

But many in the UK and EU suspect that, rather than resolving Brexit, Johnson’s real goal is to hold and win a general election before the disruption created by a no deal exit makes such an election unwinnable. EU leaders, said Rogers, “conclude from recent events that his primary objective is to win an election by reunifying the right and squeezing the Brexit party.”

As Global Government Forum noted in June, if in a general election “Johnson were to wrap himself in the union jack and charge into battle, rallying ‘plucky little Britain’ behind his war against the ‘bureaucratic bullies of the EU’, he’d clean up on the Leave side.” And the PM’s actions since his appointment have been consistent with a strategy that involves prompting opposition in the Commons, then claiming that MPs are tying his hands and going to the country to seek a new mandate.

Johnson’s prorogation announcement last week was unprecedented in modern times – but he left MPs a window in which they could organise votes ruling out no deal or forcing an election. On Sunday, he cancelled plans for meetings with rebel Tory MPs, while government whips warned that rebelling Tories would be deselected to prevent them from standing in a general election. The hardball tactics appeared to firm up opposition among the rebels, many of whom in recent months tried to secure Commons majorities for May’s deal – but had their own plans foiled by rebelling hard Brexiteers, many of whom are themselves now ministers in Johnson’s Cabinet. And Michael Gove, the Tory minister responsible for no deal planning, suggested at the weekend that the government might not obey any new Commons legislation – further outraging rebel MPs.

“The [PM’s] strategy, to be honest, is to lose [in the Commons] this week and then seek a general election, having removed those of us who are not against leaving the European Union, but believe we should do so with a deal,” the Tory rebel and former minister David Gauke told the Guardian.

David Gauke, former Treasury secretary: PM’s strategy is “to lose [in the Commons] this week and then seek a general election”. Pic by UK in Japan-FCO

The trap awaits

So the stage is set for a general election. If opposition parties and Tory rebels block Johnson’s strategy, the PM is likely to go to the country – running the ‘tell them again’ campaign long advocated by his adviser Dominic Cummings.

Under the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, Johnson has two routes to securing an election: either he wins a two-thirds majority in the Commons, or he instigates a two-week period in which MPs can try to find a majority for a new PM – failing which, an election will be held. So his most straightforward path requires opposition support; and prominent Remainers have warned Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn not to back an election unless MPs have already legislated for a new referendum on EU membership.

Speaking on Monday at the Institute for Government, former Labour PM Tony Blair argued that “Brexit is an issue that was originally decided on its own and should be reconsidered on its own”: Blair fears that Labour’s ambiguous position on Brexit and Corbyn’s personal unpopularity would cost the party votes, leading to a Johnson victory. Supporting an election now would mean falling into Johnson’s “elephant trap”, he warned, and the Tories “could succeed [in a general election], despite a majority being against a no deal Brexit, because some may fear a Corbyn premiership more.” Some Remainers fear that Johnson could even agree to a pre-31 October election date, then use a ‘proclamation’ to postpone it until after Brexit.

Yet it’s hard to imagine the Labour Party – which has consistently and loudly called for a general election – refusing to swallow Johnson’s poison pill. Unless Johnson’s opponents fail in this week’s bid to block a no deal exit, we’re likely to see an election called for for mid-October.

Tony Blair, speaking on Monday at the Institute for Government, warned Labour against Johnson’s ‘elephant trap’. Pic by IfG/Candice McKenzie

A divisive campaign

The subsequent campaign would be an ugly one, in which Johnson sought to blame UK MPs as well as the EU for the failure of exit talks – rallying ‘the people’ against their own parliamentarians. And as soon as the election was called, any realistic hope that Johnson might agree a compromise deal with the EU would be destroyed.

There is a purely practical reason for this: during the campaign, the civil service would go into ‘purdah’ – during which, the government could not make substantive policy decisions. But there’s also a very political reason, built around Johnson’s electoral strategy: as Rogers points out, committing to a no deal exit “and trying to keep the Remain side of British politics split for that election will be the prime minister’s aim, regardless of the revisions the EU offers him on the Political Declaration or examining the alternative arrangements to the backstop. Indeed anything offered to the prime minister would have to be declared insufficient and an indication of EU intransigence, or the strategy does not work.”

So the UK is creeping ever closer to a general election. The stakes could barely be higher. The political interests of today’s Tory leadership could barely be further from the economic and social interests of the UK’s population. And while Johnson looks set to sweep up much of the Leave vote, Remain voters are currently split between competing opposition parties. Under three consecutive prime ministers, the Tory Party has gradually brought itself to a position where its electoral interests lie in winning a parliamentary majority for the most damaging and disruptive of Brexits. Nobody can predict the result of an October election, but the PM’s electoral strategy looks set to unify many Leavers. Unless the Remain parties and Labour can show similar unity, Johnson may well get his majority – and the price of his victory will be paid by citizens and businesses across the EU.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

2 Comments

  1. Narek M

    03/09/2019 at

    Johnson’s ‘poison pill’ – Sounds like real objective presentation of the facts. Keep your bias out of the research please

  2. Anita Pincas

    09/09/2019 at

    How idiotic does one have to be to leave a FREE market in order to pay considerably more for goods! Where are the sensible voices of people who can do simple arithmetic? Or is our regrettably long-time distrust of “foreigners” greater than our wish for our citizens’ prosperity?

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