Brexit: Boris Johnson’s Impossibility Theorem

Even though the press paid a lot of attention to Boris Johnson’s taking of office theatrics, and in particular his doubling down on his promise of an October 31 exit and stocking his Cabinet with radicals to help assure that, there were a couple of signals from the EU side that are worth noting, which we’ll cover after a short recap.

We said early on that the course of Brexit was showing troubling parallels to the Greece 2015 bailout negotiations. Specifically, from the outset, the UK overestimated its bargaining leverage. Too many well placed pols and pundits convincing themselves that the EU would be more damaged by a crashout than the UK and therefore would be desperate to avoid a no deal. A more reality-based way of coming to a similar conclusion is that EU pols will always favor kick the can down the road over making a difficult decision, particularly one that will result in real damage. Thus push come to shove, given a way to avoid a Brexit, the EU will take advantage of it.

We now appear to have hit the point we anticipated, that of a game of chicken. The pro-Brexit faction, despite having lost support in the UK population, has embraced a more and more hard-line position, and the peculiarities of the UK system has allowed one of their favorites, Boris Johnson, to become Prime Minister. Some hoped that the fabulously unprincipled Johnson might find a way to reverse himself and call for a face-saving extension down the road, but Johnson looks to be doing everything he can to commit himself to an October 31 departure. The press was agog at Johnson’s Cabinet purge, in which he ousted anyone who was soft on Brexit, and populated his team heavily with MPs from the Leave campaign, leading some to speculate that despite Johnson’s protestations otherwise, he was preparing for an early election. Another indicator: the Tories launched a “blitz” of election ads to test messages.

In a further gesture to show his commitment to leaving on October 31, Johnson said in his first speech to the House of Commons that he will not nominate an EU Commissioner. Express pointed out that that would make it difficult to obtain an extension. The term of the current Commission ends on October 31 and the UK would need to field a new EU Commissioner were it to remain in the EU beyond that date.

A defining characteristic of the Johnson Government is its mediocrity. From vlade:

What’s really staggering the the proportion of people who are totally incompetent and believe their own BS (Raab, Moggie, Patel, Leadsom..). I despair for the UK’s education system with Williamson being allowed anywhere near it.

Johnson, in his first speech as Prime Minister, promised the UK was leaving the EU, “no ifs or buts,” in 99 days with a new deal. He also promised economic unicorns that would make Labour blush for its grandiose patter about “safer streets and better education and fantastic new road and rail infrastructure…higher wages, and a higher living wage, and higher productivity we close the opportunity gap” without any specifics as to how to produce such miraculous improvements. Johnson did acknowledge that there was a “remote possibility” that there would be no deal, and so

…we will now accelerate the work of getting ready and the ports will be ready and the banks will be ready and the factories will be ready and business will be ready and the hospitals will be ready and our amazing food and farming sector will be ready and waiting to continue selling ever more not just here but around the world….

I imagine at least some of you in the UK saw Johnson speak, and I feel very sorry for you. I can’t recall ever reading a major address that had so much hot air and so little substance, and what substance there was was deeply wrongheaded. Let’s start with the fact that Sir Ivan Rogers said it would take the UK five to ten years to be ready to trade with the rest of the world on a free trade agreement basis, and pretty much everyone competent to opine has made a similar assessment, if anything tending to the ten year end of the spectrum. So where is this Johnsonian readiness to be found?

On the other side of the channel, EU officials who prefer to communicate in diplo-speak are resorting to sharper notes in their register to try to penetrate the fog around No. 10 and Parliament. You have to wonder if they are responding to the clangor out of a sense of duty, or to demonstrate to their colleagues and history that they did everything they could.

Entirely predictably, they swatted down Johnson’s happy talk. Michel Barnier’s remarks via a Times reporter:

Waterfield focused on Barnier’s intimating that a general election might be in store (the “many strong reactions….in the House of Commons”) and that Johnson’s no deal bluster was a gambit to split the EU. But at least as significant was Barnier’s reference to the mandate and his offer to remain the point person during the summer (“don’t worry about your holiday, I’ll let you know if there is anything you really need to hear about”).

By invoking the mandate, Barnier was reminding the EU national diplomats that there isn’t even remotely enough time to negotiate a new Withdrawal Agreement even if the EU was to have a massive change of heart. Barnier is saying that his hands are tied, that he couldn’t discuss a new deal with the UK unless and until the EU went back to square zero and gave him new marching orders. He’s almost certainly reminding them of this section of Article 50:

In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.

Various EU national leaders have backed Barnier’s and Juncker’s position, that the Withdrawal Agreement is the only deal possible given the givens. Barnier is alluding to the notion that in extremis, he could be told to try again, but that would mean having the European Council come up with new guidelines. Even with the addition of an early European Council meeting, no way can this get done by October 31.

Juncker also entirely predictably sent the same message. Notice how closely the language of Juncker’s nein parallels Barnier’s text. From the Guardian:

The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has told Boris Johnson that the EU27 will not give in to his demand to renegotiate the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

On Thursday in his first telephone call with Johnson as prime minister, Juncker called the existing deal “the best and only agreement possible”…

Juncker said the EU would analyse any ideas put forward by the UK provided they were compatible with the withdrawal agreement, his spokeswoman Mina Andreeva tweeted in a readout of the phone call.

Politico underscored the significance of the minimalism:

But a Commission spokeswoman, providing a brief summary of the Juncker-Johnson phone call, did not even try to put a positive spin on things. She made clear that Juncker expressed no willingness to budge a millimeter, let alone an imperial inch, on the Withdrawal Agreement, which Brussels has stated repeatedly is not open for renegotiation.

But most important is the one possible spot where the UK might be able to drive a chink that could influence the EU is holding firm. From the Irish Times:

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told Boris Johnson, the new British prime minister, that an entirely new Brexit deal “is not going to happen”.

He also said negotiating a new deal “within weeks or months” – with Mr Johnson saying he can leave the EU with a new deal by the next Brexit deadline on October 31st – is “not in the real world”.

The press also made much of the fact that Juncker gave Johnson his cell phone number. But Barnier and Juncker appear to have nominated themselves, even more so than usual, to run interference for other EU figures. Juncker seems to like press attention, so putting himself on BoJo’s speed dial will make him less of a lame duck.

Macron has agreed to meet with Johnson in August, while Macron’s spokesperson insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement was not up for discussion. This again is no surprise, given that Macron has been taking a hard line on Brexit.

One wonders how Johnson will fight off a general election. LibDem leader Jo Swinson has written Corbyn to call him out for “aiding and abetting this Conservative Brexit” and insisting he Do Something. On the one hand, despite his bold talk, Corbyn must recognize that Labour is likely to lose seats in a general election, making the noble gesture of ousting Johnson costly. A no confidence motion may fail for that reason, as well as for the fact that previous whip counts found that Tory rebels were outnumbered by Labour MPs who would not vote to derail Brexit.

Will Johnson book so many meetings on the Continent that he can create the impression that motion equals progress? Will the press play along with Johnson, as it did with Theresa May, messaging that a deal is nigh when it was pretty clear no such thing was happening? And even with the Brexit train bearing down on the UK, will party interest manage to keep the opposition from mustering enough votes to turf out Johnson?

Even though politics in the UK still retains the appearance of normalcy, it’s hard to think this false calm will hold once the summer is over. As several astute readers have said, the UK political order is suffering a breakdown. And the early phases of revolutions typically make things worse for ordinary people.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Reading between the lines, I think the EU and Ireland are willing to give Johnson some sort of ‘cover’ if he engages in a ritualised shuttle diplomacy operation designed to make it look like everyone is doing their best. But its quite clear that he would not win anything but superficial alterations to the WA. Although I wouldn’t rule it out that the EU would openly rub his nose in it, such is the personal dislike for him throughout the corridors of power.

    Ultimately, I think the EU recognises that its all now out of their hands – its up to Johnson to engineer something to avoid a no-deal if he can, so they will not waste too much energy (or for that matter, their summer vacation) on trying to help out. Even if they wanted a new extension (and Varadkar would love that), nobody will want to use up too much political capital in arm twisting Macron or Spain or anyone else reluctant to agree.

    Johnson is on his own. He must know even he could not bluff the WA (or an altered variant) past the cabinet he’s chosen, and there is little in it for him to fight for an extension, which would just give another lifeline to Farage and set off an almighty fight within the government.

    So for him, the options must surely be either a quick election to engineer something spectacular (even he probably has no idea what that would be), or go for no-deal. He may truly believe that a no-deal is a few weeks of bad news, and everything will be fine in the New Year, in which case, he won’t lose sleep over it (if he loses sleep over anything, which I doubt). My money is on an election, its a huge gamble, but that’s in his nature. I don’t see how Corbyn or anyone else can resist the challenge to go for a quick election.

    1. ChrisPacific

      I am unclear on what problem an election actually solves for him though, except maybe to buy more time and remove DUP from the picture. Best case is he wins with a bigger majority, but even then he’ll just be back in the same position he is now.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Given the number of Tories he’s put on the backbenches who now absolutely loath him, he really doesn’t have a majority anymore. And the only possible deal he could get through would be to bring back the Irish Sea border option, which requires ditching the DUP. So I wouldn’t understate just how important it could be to him to win even a small (but clear) majority.

        From his point of view, he can face an election in the future after a calamitous exit, with a newer, more formidable Labour Leader to face. Or he can go now and potentially vanquish Corbyn while he’s at his weakest and win a clear majority to do whatever he wants, even sell out the Brexiteers. Its obviously high risk, but from his point of view, the rewards seem very high. Bearing in mind of course that its clear that neither he, nor his advisors, realise that whatever happens on Oct 31, Brexit will keep on being a political nightmare for years to come.

      2. vlade

        While he would be unlikely to get a Tory majority, he may be able to do a Farage/Johnson coalition. Chances are, that would fall apart in less than a year (the BP party bunch are even worse collection of weirdoes than Tory party), but then he would have a no-deal Brexit, and in any new elections (if he thinks that far), he would be out.

        Also, chances are that if in GE he campaigns on “not stopping Brexit”, so implicitly on no-deal Brexit, a number of BP voters may come back to Tory party fold, so the coalition with Farage may be no worse than DUP one (and if he drops DUP, he can do things like promise NI unification referndum, which would solve the backstop as a precondition to any UK/EU talks post no-deal Brexit).

        Oh, and if he’s lucky, he manages to get rid of Corbyn as a Labour leader, as if Corbyn does not win, it will be second time in row, and his position becomes extremely weak.

        1. efschumacher

          Well it is long past the time when Ireland should be properly re-unified anyway. Little England doesn’t care, indeed sees NI and the DUP as a continuing thorn. That should clear the way for the WA to go through. The gamble is on getting a big-enough DUP-ditching majority.

          1. a different chris

            Yeah I don’t believe in the Almighty, but every once in a while something that just seems that an Omniscient Being with a mean sense of humor happens.

            Sticking the Tories with the DUP over Brexit seems just like that. It’s like that dream vacation* you can’t go on unless it’s with your hated in-laws.

            *no I don’t think Brexit is anything like a dream vacation, but the Tories do is my point

            1. vlade

              TBH, Scotland is way more and unified in taking its future in its hand than NI is. That makes it much easier.

              Sturgeon basically said yesterday that she is going to push for IndyRef2. Last poll I saw says that independence would win it now with Johnson PM (even ignoring any no-deal Brexit).

              1. ambrit

                Curious that. Someone I know over here originally from Scotland, who goes back semi regularly, says that Scotland stands to lose too much economically through the loss of all the UK military bases and some of the North Sea Oil revenues. His thesis is that Scotland is not an economically viable stand alone nation.
                How does that look from over there (question mark]
                As for NI, is there any chance of ethnic cleansing of the Unorthodox after a reunification (question mark]

                1. Donn

                  In the absence of UK military/intelligence once more arming and coordinating unionist paramilitaries, the likelihood of ethnic cleansing in a reunified Ireland really is vanishingly low…in the absence…

                  As for an independent Scotland’s viability, one might well argue that its economic weakness is a necessary function of a state established to prioritize English interests above all else. But I’d be interested to hear views of Scottish commenters on this.

                  1. PlutoniumKun

                    Yes, that’s an important point – loyalist terrorism is much weaker without its unofficial ‘support’ from London. However, it is arguably more vicious – the likes of the Shankill Butchers are the ‘natural’ outcome of letting them loose.

                    I suspect the question of how Scotland would do in independence depends very much on its choices on the EU and the Euro, and what sort of separation deal it gets with the UK. The forgotten element in this is that the big driver in separating the Union is increasingly not Scottish nationalism, but English nationalism. A lot of Brexiters quite openly see their future as ‘England’, not the UK. And the Welsh get left high and dry in all this.

                2. cirsium

                  If Norway and Iceland are economically viable stand-alone nations, I can see no reason why Scotland could not be the same. There is a growing renewables industry, established oil and gas production, world-class food and drink industries, and world-class universities.

            1. Fazal Majid

              Also relevant is the Catholic Church’s remarkable loss of influence, due not only to the pedophile priest scandals, but also the horrific abuses committed by state-sanctioned institutions like the Magdalene sisters, who buried dead orphans in septic tanks.

              The net result of this massive dechristianization of Éire (as evidenced by the referendums on gay marriage and abortion) is that it is no longer the Papist bogeyman Irish Protestant leaders love to wave around.

    2. Donn

      Re giving Johnson ‘cover’, I think you’re right. Reading between the lines of remarks by the Taoiseach/Tánaiste in the Irish media over the last few weeks, and throwing in that recent report about a multi-billion pound aid package for Ireland does, I think, support your view that, barring some unlikely twist in the corridors of power in Westminster, the EU has quietly accepted the game is up. The UK will crash out on October 31st. All that’s left now is to ensure at least some of the blame lands at Britain’s feet, and facilitating a round-robin of pointless shuttling around the continent over the summer might help.

      What’s funny is how the Irish Government keeps on using the most anodyne and bland language about its discussions with the Commission on no-deal preparations, all while refusing to divulge any real specifics.

      I completely understand why it’s doing so. But it is starting to feel an awful lot like the husband earnestly reassuring the missus his friendship with Laura in the office is purely work-related, platonic and utterly, utterly innocent. And also refusing point-blank to let her look at his text messages.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Even Stephen Collins in the Irish Times (reliable pro-British, pro-neolib establishment) has now recognised there is no merit to compromising with Johnson. If you are a Tory and you’ve lost Collins, then the game really is up.

        As you say, the language is very neutral – they are desperate not to provoke panic in the border regions. I suspect there is a lot more going on beneath the surface than we know – it was agenda item no.1 for Merkel on her last visit earlier in the year to demand that Ireland shape up to its responsibilities as a new ‘border’ country. We know there have been secret discussions going on for a long time between the Irish and Northern Irish police about what to do, so we have to assume there are ‘plans’ in place. The question is how good those plans are and how will they implement them.

        1. ambrit

          One big tell here is that you use the term Northern Irish olice instead of UK olice. Searate but equal didnt work over here and I doubt if it will over there.

  2. disillusionized

    It’s funny but it seems Varadkar is in the same sort of terrible position Johnson is – He can’t back down on the backstop, but a no deal will probably destroy his re-election chances. Voters are unfair it seems.

    As for Johnson, the only sane way out of this seems to be engineering fresh elections before exit day (even if that means being ‘forced’ to ask for another month or two to make that happen) and then running on no deal explicitly (since the EU has refused to negotiate) and blaming the extension on parliament.
    Then he would have five years to survive no-deal and a majority so if necessary, could sell out NI – Even now, there are many of the hardliners who at least say the WA is acceptable sans the all UK backstop.

    It’s also worth noting that as far as the conservative party is concerned, this might be the best option even if they lose – shoring up their right flank and keeping the conservatives as the only right wing option. The party leadership is probably also cognizant of the fact that it might be less painful and produce less time in opposition than no-deal.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I’m not so sure that Varadkar sees it that way – he desperately wants Brexit to go away, but his handling of it has been popular (much more so than anything else he’s touched) and he may well see an electoral advantage in a no-deal. Nobody will blame him for the chaos and he’ll be seen as the safe pair of hands to steer things in the midst of a crisis.

      1. disillusionized

        It depends entirely on when the (Irish) elections are going to be held, but provided they aren’t done in the midst of the crisis, but rather after, then i think his ‘failure’ of managing the border (an impossible task) and the economic downturn will do him in.

  3. Ataraxite

    Boris Johnson is many things – immoral, dishonest, glib, reckless, lazy, detail-shy and sleazy – but one thing he is not is dumb. Under the confected exterior, there is a razor sharp strategist. Witness the way he talked himself into the role of Prime Minister, side-stepping the obvious difficult period after Leave won (letting May take the fallout), and then waltzing into the job at a good time as almost a fait accompli. Do not underestimate this man.

    Right now, the EU is doing exactly what he wants: keeping to the path they’ve set for themselves as regards to the Backstop. Indeed, they have no other option, and this is playing into his hands. He gets to portray the EU as being unreasonable and unwilling to negotiate, and when he thinks the time is right, he’ll try and get parliamentary backing for No Deal. When that isn’t granted, he gets what he really wants: an election against the disarrayed forces of Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens, and a neutralised Brexit party. The FPTP elections of the UK mean that if he can get around 30% of the vote for the Conservatives, and everyone else is fighting around 20-25% (or less), he’d win a sizeable majority. It’s quite obvious that neither Corbyn nor Jo Swinson are credible threats against him.

    If I was the EU, I’d take the opportunity at the next Council meeting to rule out any further extension after October 31. Now, not at the last minute, when there is still time for the UK to change course. Removing the fallback position of an extension would make the same three choices of Deal, No Deal or No Brexit crystal clear to the UK parliament, and I suspect in that situation, a newfound enthusiasm for the Withdrawal Agreement might well be found, even amongst opposition parties. But I doubt this will happen.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think the EU realises that no matter what they do, Johnson along with most of the UK media will portray them as the problem. But now of course, they don’t really care.

      I think your last paragraph is correct, this is probably the only way the EU can be helpful, and they’ll probably due it, I think the straws in the wind are that any more extensions are pointless and politically unsustainable.

      1. Anonymous2

        I think in practice it is pretty difficult to win a Parliamentary majority with less than 35% of the votes. In theory it could happen of course depending on where the other parties get their votes and how much tactical voting occurs but you have to allow for the fact that 18 seats in NI are going to parties other than the main British parties and Scotland is probably going to be pretty much wrapped up by the SNP. With a few other seats here and there (PC, Green, LibDem) then that is probably a minimum of 70 seats that neither Con nor Lab are going to get, and of course the number could be a lot larger if the LDs make a serious resurgence, which cannot be discounted. The Brexit Party is of course the unknown quantity – will it run at all, do a broader pact with Johnson or does Farage get a safe Tory seat and promise of a Cabinet job?

        35% was the last recorded level of support for a no deal Brexit so that might be just enough but so much depends on tactical voting then, which did occur in significant degree in 1997 and 2001 when a lot of Labour and LibDem voters voted anti-Tory without there being any formal agreement between the parties.

        Given that no-deal should be capable of being very effectively attacked by any competent opposition, there is a lot to play for.

      2. Ignacio

        Exactly. The EU just no longer care about the narrative that B.J. will try to sell internally. The legacy of Merkel is that –now shift to EU internal narrative– she tried her best to give time so the UK could come to her senses, and that is enough, more that enough. Johnson has no leverage to impose anything to the EU and he knows the only way to avoid to be the one responsible for a no-deal brexit is a snap election and pass the hot potato to the next government.

        If there is an abrupt brexit without deal, will UKers really enjoy it blaming to the EU or would some many think that the backstop was not as insane as BJ and the like have sold? But this is, again, internal UK narrative, nothing that bothers EU policy makers very much.

    2. robert dudek

      If I was the EU, I’d take the opportunity at the next Council meeting to rule out any further extension after October 31.

      Not going to happen because they have said repeatedly that a no-deal Brexit will never be the choice of the EU27. And what they mean is that they will not force the UK out no matter what. De facto they mean they will extend if the UK requests it. Only the UK NOT requesting an extension or NOT revoking Article 50 can possibly result in a crash out.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      A reader in on the last Brexit post contended that an MP would have had to put a vote during this session. iI gather it takes at least a day and so the actual vote would not take place till after the summer recess, unless Parliament voted to stay in session) and have it occur at the start of the next session to have the GE take place before Brexit. So now any GE would require the Brexit date to be pushed back (unless Johnson goes nuclear and refuses to ask, and with Parliament going on caretaker mode after the first 14 days, would they be in a position to pass legislation to force him to do so?)

  4. vlade

    On Corbyn and GE. As you say, Labour at the very best would stand still re seats*. But he has called for GE so often, including very recently, that if he now said “nah, go and eat your dogfood Boris”, he (and Labour) would totally lose any credibility. Be careful what you wish for, lest you get it.

    *)This gives them 255, which is actually 8 seats mor than they have now. But that is based on average of all polls.
    YouGov set of polls gives Labour significantly less (<200 seats), and is significantly different from all other polls, more so than would a normal margin-of-error allow for. But here's the trick. On the EU elections, YG was the only polster who did not significantly overestimate Labour share. In fact, the only thing they got wrong was overestimate BrexitParty support, and somewhat underestimaet LD, otherwise they were bang on.

    1. vlade

      It looks like Labour is already starting to prepare for a GE

      The only small problem they have is that a number of ex-Labour voters do not trust Corbyn anymore. Labour here would have IMO only two chances:
      – do a silent implicit deal with LD/GP. I don’t think it possible, too much history and bad blood
      – replace Corbyn with Starmer or similar (while Corbyn would retain a senior position, say deputy). Not gonna happen either.

      So even if Labour comes unequivocally for remain, I’m not sure it would help, as the remain vote would IMO almost certainly split.

      Worse yet, if the change of direction fails, Labour itself will almost certainly split.

      1. efschumacher

        Replace Corbyn is NGTH: as soon as Labour called a leadership election would be the exact right time for johnson to call an election.

      2. Redlife2017

        Vlade – Labour has been preparing for over a month on that. That’s why MPs have started stating if they are retiring from their seat or want to carry on. If their CLP (including affiliated to constituency labour unions) decides they don’t want that MP, they can now be deselected.

        But Labour has done this before (last year they were ramping as well and uh, nothing). Everyone expects an election, but I’m not convinced that we’ll have one. Could be wrong – not the first time! I can’t tell if there is actually the numbers to crash the government.

        In my counterpoint on not having an election pre-Brexit is how Farage/ Brexit Party does change the calculus. Farage on his daily radio programme last night (ugh not my choice) was pretty clear that he will nail the Tories if they don’t deliver Brexit on 31 October. He views Johnson as a prevaricator and would use Johnson’s issues with actually making real decisions a huge liability. He was very convincing on that point, actually. People forget that Farage is really good at pointing out the issues with an amazing laser-like focus.

        I see a possibility where Farage does well enough to go into coalition with the Tories where he has significant power (unlike the doofus LibDems, Farage has no issue with wielding power). But then Boris would have to live with Farage for 5 YEARS. I don’t think (but oh, could be wrong! Who really knows what people are thinking.) that Farage would want to lose his power and possibly would force Johnson to agree to not call an early election in the power sharing agreement. I mean, why not? And then Farage has time to turn the Brexit Party into something else or more. Because, as we all know, Brexit will always be here. It won’t go away. He has every reason to play it that way. But if Johnson waits until just AFTER 31 October and it’s not a complete [family-blog], that would be the right time. He could crush Brexit Party AND Labour. Vacuum up the leavers from both sides and he would have a landslide. 5 years with the best majority anyone has had since 1997.

        But Johnson is allergic to long-term strategic thinking, so I might be totally off base.

        1. vlade

          Farage is talking his book, which doesn’t mean he must be wrong though. His best strategy right now is to play hard (impossible) to get. Come GE, it will be “show me the polls” time though, and post GE, it will be “show me your MPs”.

          Not sure whether GE in November would work that well for Johnson. He could vacuum BP, but Labour IMO would be more likely vacuumed by LD(middle age centrists)/GP (young left).

          TBH, I have no prediction of GE (happening or not) anymore. I thought it likely, but it’s so much in the air that it’s no better than reading tea leaves.

          1. vlade

            Actually, just re-read my para 2, and duh. Nov election would likely work for Johnson becasue he would vacuum BP, and LD/GP could well take Labour remain voters who would have felt betrayed by Labour. The really sad thing on this would be that Tories would manage to splinter all the other voters, which in FPTP system is equivalent to perma-government (

            As an aside: this is the bit that I don’t get in Labour. Some sort of PR is clearly a more fair and democratic vote (FPTP disenfranchises voters based on where they live, which can be a very large part of population. PR may still disenfranchise, with % thresholds, but that tends to be much smaller part of population). If there was a PR, Labour, or Labour with a centrist coalition partner, would have been in the government much more than they were. Yet Labour doesn’t seem to be interested in changing the system.

            1. Redlife2017

              Yes, I didn’t make clear either that I thought the LibDems would take as well as Tories. But the thing about that with FPTP is that the Tories could actually take those seats like they did in Scotland by splitting the center/left vote. So Boris uber alles! If there is an election, it is going to be…interesting.

              To comment on your aside – I think what you are seeing is the inability to be creative in their systems thinking. Keep in mind how Labour (and a lot of its members) don’t see this as the massive inflection point and you and I see it as. A person has to be able to see the inflection point (without totally freaking out) to see that the entire system requires a rethink. Because if you don’t rethink the system yourself, then, uh, somebody else will instead. And you might not like the outcome of their thinking.

              Therefore, moving from the current system to something else is a bit like how Labour says nothing about the absurdity of having the summer break.
              “We always have a break.”
              “Buuuuut it’s not a normal time!”

            2. PlutoniumKun

              The idea of a November election never occurred to me – I would have thought it would be high risk for anyone having an election right in the middle of a panic over food supplies for Christmas. But it could make a sort of weird sense to the Conservatives if they think Remainers view it as the rest of the world while Brexiteers see it as a short but sharp price worth paying for liberty.

              As for Labour and elections, I’ve always been similarly baffled by Labours utter opposition to reform. Every argument I’ve ever heard comes down to ‘only FTBP can deliver a strong united Left government’. Except it hasn’t.

              The reality is that the majority of people in the UK are loosely center to left, so any other system would have provided a modestly left and reformist government in most elections for the past few decades.

              1. Anonymous2

                Yes, Labour have shot themselves in the foot over and over on PR for decades. If they had introduced it in the 1960s then there would never have been any Thatcherism, privatisation etc. Their lack of foresight and competent strategic decision making has been disastrous for their interests. They bought into the theory that the UK was bound always to move to the left. A huge mistake.

                1. Synoia

                  I don’t recall the Wilson or Callahan Government discussing PR, nor anything I read discussing PR for the UK.

                  It would have been dismissed then, in the ’60s, as some unappealing European Concept.

                  Blair would have had an opportunity for PR.

              2. Yves Smith Post author

                This would be freakishly parallel to Greece. A GE would implicitly be about Brexit. A referendum after the central question was moot.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      The huge problem of course with UK polls is that FPTP means that its notoriously difficult to extrapolate seat results from overall popularity. With so many more viable parties now in many constituencies its become even harder. And a big unknown is how many voters have the willingness and ability to vote strategically.

      I suspect that only the political parties themselves have the sort of granular seat by seat figures to make a real projection. The relative quietness of Labour over a quick election leads me to think that the news their internal data crunchers are giving is not good.

      Also, if Johnson goes for an election, he will at least try to negate the Brexit Party by doing some sort of deal, public or not. Farage will undoubtedly have a price. If they can be negated, I find it hard to see Johnson lose.

  5. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves.

    Further to Vlade’s despair at the UK education system, he’s right to be. Having grown up in Buckinghamshire, I can see how Raab (born in Amersham and educated at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School) and Leadsom (born in Aylesbury and educated at Aylesbury High School before moving to Kent and being educated at a girls’ grammar school) have evolved. Some lefties are mobilising against Eton (and other public schools), they should also be mobilising against grammar schools, from whence much of Thatcherism (petit bourgeois poujadisme) originates. The pair also exemplify how the Tory Party has fallen. Growing up, Raab’s MP was Sir Ian Gilmour, Baronet and later Baron Gilmour of Craigmillar, and Leadsom’s MP was Sir Timothy Raison. Gilmour and Raison were One Nation Tory Wets (Millikan and Rockefeller Republicans in the US) far removed from the oiks and yahoos who seized control the party from the late 1970s onwards. Apparently, moving from the Magic Circle (of Old Etonians that elected Alec Douglas-Home in 1963) was progress.

    Leadsom’s Wikipedia entry is interesting, i.e. interesting in the way that Chuka Umunna’s is and was updated from his Commons office PC.

    1. F.Korning

      Plenty of non tory politicicans went to minor public schools, catholic schools, or grammar schools and turned out as progressives, though I agree the top public schools have a need for reform.

  6. vlade

    I can’t remember (and don’t have time to find out), does in the US the power to make trade treaties lie with the Congress or the President? That matters for the UK, as Irenald has strong enough lobby to make passing it HoC hard, but that would not matter if all it would take is Trump’s signature.

    1. Ataraxite

      These were Nancy Pelosi’s comments yesterday (from

      We made it clear in our conversations with senior members of the Conservative Party earlier this year that there should be no return to a hard border on the island. That position has not changed. Any trade deal between the US and Great Britain would have to be cognisant of that,

      The President has “Fast Track” authority to negotiate trade deals, but they still require ratification of Congress with a simple up/down vote which doesn’t permit amendments.

      1. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists?

        So why can’t US Congress just require the UK congress to accept the backstop?

    2. Briny

      Treaties require approval in the Senate. Nancy can talk all she wants, the House has no say.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        The procedures for fast track authority require approval by the Senate and House. Normal treaties require a 2/3 vote of the Senate.

        And on top of that, US bi-lateral trade deals are one-sided. The US dictates terms even in normal circumstances. And the UK would be in a much worse bargaining position than most countries by virtue of needing a deal urgently.

  7. Biologist

    Re: the backstop
    Here a twitter thread explaining that from the EU perspective, the all-UK backstop was a huge concession to the UK, and that the Theresa May could have presented this domestically as the huge win it was (basically, many single market benefits for the whole UK with less strings attached)
    But this ship has sailed of course.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Indeed, it needs restating that it was a huge concession to the UK. Yet another of May’s colossal failures was her inability to communicate this.

  8. John Beech

    Fact – latest polling shows support for Brexit has increased.
    Fact – PM Johnson won his job fair and square.
    Fact – he’s entitled to stock his cabinet as he pleases.

    Meanwhile, in terms of strength of negotiating positions, I note the condition of EU bank stocks? Do you think this has implications for the EU currency once the UK is free once again? After all, Brexit also means shedding financial obligation for eastern and southern Europe, and I suspect this will matter quite a bit when the next economic downturn arrives. Thus, it’s not a matter of a stronger bargaining position, but a matter of they held the referendum on leaving and the Brexit position won. It seems much like those wanting to re-litigate that referendum are like those wanting to re-litigate Hillary Clinton’s loss.

    Me? I learned as a child not to be a sore loser. Some never grow up.

    1. Redlife2017

      “Fact – he’s entitled to stock his cabinet as he pleases.”

      And as a British citizen / subject I can note that I think he’s filled his cabinet with a lot of people I wouldn’t trust to manage my sock drawer. I think for a British person to say that we can’t criticise public authorities around their choices is against the very grain of being British. We Brits are a grumpy lot. If you don’t let us be grumpy we might send a strongly worded letter.

      Also, I’m not sure how we would have to send money to eastern and southern Europe as there is no fiscal mechanism (purposely) and we aren’t members of the Euro. I’ll leave others to comment on that…

    2. vlade

      Fact – “Brexit support” depends on how you define the question. I can find polls that range from 47% for “remain” to over 50% (and “leave” between 30% odd to 40 odd), depending on the question. For example, 20 June Survation poll, question “Should the UK remain as an EU memeber, or leave?”. 51% remain, 44% leave, 4% undecided.

      Fact – Johnson can do as like pleases as the PM. He will take the consequeces as they come, not as he pleases.

      1. Tony Wright

        Fact: Johnson was elected PM by Conservative party members, not at a General Election.

        1. F.Korning

          FPTP isn’t the only culprit here. Decades of tory gerrymandering, black propaganda budgets, and illegal big data analytics on private voter data (as per GDPR) are its enablers, all of which are crimes irrespective of the voting system. We can only conclude by the lack of serious ivestigation and prosecution from Scotland Yard that they are heavily partisan.

          1. Anonymous2

            Indeed, the police seem to have failed to pursue the recommendation of the Electoral Commission to investigate law breaches by VoteLeave (headed by Johnson and Gove) because of ‘political sensitivities’.

        2. vlade

          Yes, but it was according to a set of rules that were well known and around for quite a while. I don’t like them, but that doesn’t mean they are illegal. So JB’s “Fact” two is technically most likely correct (there could be a dispute of whether the rules are fair, which would involve definition of the people you believe are affected etc. etc., but he rules were not really challenged until Johnson shown up).

          If anything, his fact two could be attacked more via the suspicious behaviour around MP rounds, where it’s IMO very likely (but I can’t prove it) that some Johnson supporting MPs voted Hunt to avoid Gove/Johnson showdown. Again, technically it’s not illegal, but would very likely not be considered fair by most people.

    3. Mirdif

      Nope. I want a chaotic crash out with a very very hawkish reaction from the continent. That will put your sorts back in your box where you should never be allowed an opinion let alone voice it. I’ve never voted and don’t particularly care either way as I’ll leave the country if I think it will negatively impact me and mine. Yes, I’m one of those citizens of nowhere who sees passports as bits of paper.

      But I’m sick to the back teeth of this jingoistic nonsense built on the back of “they need us more than we need them”, an England long ago dead because the natives couldn’t be bothered to have enough kids but preferred to get drunk and do drugs, and not least infernal war legends which forget the superior role of the USA and the USSR. FYI, there is no financial obligation to eastern or southern Europe. Have a look at how much money was lent to Greece by the British government if you don’t believe me. I’ve yet to encounter any Brexit voter who doesn’t believe in all or some of these things. It’s dressed up in nonsense like the EU is neo-liberal so I voted for the most neo-liberal member to leave it or some nonsense about sovereignty or bendy bananas. It’s a reaction to globalization that the people continued to vote in favour of for a very very long time. Now they don’t like the result they want to go back to how it was. Well people like me who do fine as it stands and will continue to do in the case of a chaotic crash out don’t want to go back to some mythical era.

      As for freedom, that is absolutely shameful to even suggest that the British government or the British people were not and are not free – they were certainly free to drop high explosive ordnance on to the heads of the people of Iraq, Syria and Libya and vote for parties that wanted to do that. Certainly free enough to enable light touch regulation of the city which produced such spivs as the one now sat in number 11. So give it a rest for you know nothing of freedom and slavery if you think these things can be decided by those who are not free.

      No backsies. Chaotic crash out and let’s hope your sorts mouthed off loudly to people whose families will starve in the worst cases. This is the only real solution to this. People need to get what they voted for without any safeguards. The fire sale of the country afterwards won’t benefit those who voted for it. Think Russia in the 1990s and get ready to eat grass in this situation.

      More’s the pity that we’re not going to get anything like this as it would certianly put an end to so much of the nonsense that is spouted.

  9. The Rev Kev

    European Union: “Now remember United Kingdom Parliament, you have only 96 days left until the final Brexit date. Don’t waste them!”

    British Parliament: “We won’t. (waits till the EU is gone) Right! We’re going on our summer holidays now. We’ll see if we can’t cram in a General Election before that Halloween date as well. Oh yeah, we have that Conservative Party Conference coming up as well in October. Labour too come to think of it. We’ll just muddle our way through it and it will all come out right in the end.”

  10. Mattski

    Have followed these conversations admiringly off and on for several years now, always on the hunt for bottom lines. Tell me if this looks right:

    1. The European leadership will be happy, at this stage, to see Britain suffer, and–moreover–is resigned, perhaps even adjusting, to the aftermath.

    2. The British/neoliberal right wants to dismantle everything and sell it at a fire sale and reconfigure the British people for outright serfdom in something of a reversion to how this whole mess got started in the first place (cf Ellen Meiksins Wood).

    If these things are more or less right isn’t now to October more or less pappyshow, with Brexit now a foregone conclusion and the real question how Johnson stage-manages for optimal electoral results?

    EDIT: I suppose I’m forgetting Ireland, but my hoped-for outcome would be a sense of general repulsion outside of England and eventual unification.

    1. vlade

      The possible outcomes are:

      No GE before Oct 31.
      No deal Brexit. By far most likely IMO, the default outcome.Nothing much has to happen for this become reality.

      WA. Yes, WA is still possible. Johnson does not have to table it, some MP could try to tack it on the legislative process (which Johnson might, or might not silently support), and scared Labour + a few Tory MPs could get it through. May’s no deal Brexit was never credible internally or externaly. Johnson’s is. The difference is that the EU doesn’t care, but he may scare enough Tory/Labour MPs to get THEM to bring WA back and vote for it. In which case he’d be like “This is not what I wanted, but the MPs (Labour!) made me do it!”.

      Revocation. Extremely unlikely, putting up just for completeness.

      GE before Oct 31:

      Depends on the final parliament makeup, and when exactly would the GE results come in.

      Tory majority: No deal, as Johnson would capaing on no-deal to get this. In theory, Johnson could here still do WA by tying backstop to time limit and a unification referendum.

      Tory+BP (and possibly DUP), the no-deal. That’s pretty much what Johnson would have to campaign on (see above), and BP would hold his feet to it.

      Attempt at extension, and then most likely 2nd referendum (would be a condition of LD/SNP etc. for any govt). Would the EU go with it? Most likely, as they don’t really fancy no-deal right now (EU recession is coming), and this would give them 18-24 months.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        As reader Ataraxite said on June 24, it’s too late for a GE before October 31:

        September 3 is the date to watch, per – once that passes, it is no longer possible for a No Confidence vote to pass, and an election to be held prior to the October 31 timeline….

        Actually, I just read that tweet even more closely: the motion of confidence would have to be tabled *tomorrow*, to be debated on September 3, when the Commons returns from its recess. In effect, that means the remainers most potent weapon – bringing down the government – could have already been neutralised.

        1. vlade

          TBH, I’d not get too hang up on the 31 Oct, as I do not really believe that if the UK has GE that will get a result on say Nov 8 (given that the UK elections usually run on Thursdays), the EU will insist on the date of 31 Oct. In fact, I’d not be even surprised if it came with some fudge to suspend the date even if the UK didn’t ask for it.

          A lot was made in the spring of the EU elections, and how there’s no way the EU would extend past that. Yet, here we are with Oct date, further out than even I (and I was an outlier saying August ) assumed possible.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            Yes, I think if an election was called the EU would almost certainly offer a delay of a few weeks at least. But having said that, Johnson has painted himself into a corner where it might be hard for him to accept it.

      1. bold'un

        Corbyn could offer a ‘free vote’ on Theresa May’s WA at the beginning of September, and then claim ‘It was not Boris it was me that enabled Brexit’; this would shoot a lot of Johnson’s foxes for the next General Election because if it comes down to who can be most anti-Austerity, Johnson might lose…

  11. David

    Getting back to Johnson for a moment, the thing that continues to astound me is that he was Foreign Secretary for nearly all the time the WA was being negotiated, including the March 2018 document where the original NI Backstop commitment was included. I know Johnson is lazy and doesn’t read things, but there have to be limits to how indolent and ignorant even he can be. The FCO would have been following the negotiations very closely, talking to other nations and they, and, most of all, talking to Ireland. The FCO would have received a flood of telegrams every day, and probably at least one a day from Dublin, dealing with the backstop. In other words, the backstop is something Johnson must have been perfectly well aware of, just as he must have been told many times that the WA was a document that would be signed by all 28 states and binding on all of them. Johnson must have taken part in a lot of Cabinet meetings where the main lines of the WA, including the backstop, were discussed, and he clearly didn’t raise any objection. The fact that he was not technically a member the government when the WA was finally agreed doesn’t change very much.
    So how do we understand this? It’s possible that Johnson never paid any attention to the negotiations at the time, and genuinely thinks that with a bit of bluff and brinkmanship he can force the EU to renegotiate. I think this is his preferred outcome, well ahead of no-deal. He wants to go down in history as the PM who put Europe in its place, and left on his own terms. If he is living a fantasy ,as I think he is – this amounts to the greatest professional failure of any British politician in modern times. Not following what’s in the newspapers is one thing. Not doing your duty to follow the professional advice and briefing of your own department is something else entirely.

    1. Susan the other`

      Hard to read BoJo. I get the impression he is very conscious of his image; it is useful because he is good at off-the-cuff remarks, and he messes up his hair intentionally. But he is very calculating. He doesn’t like being caught on camera by a lurking reporter. He won’t respond to any unexpected questions. That tells me something – if he slips up and reveals anything about his true agenda it will then be very difficult to explain. My favorite image of him is seeing BoJo literally jumping down out of a big SUV (arriving at some conference in the EU) and looking like a chubby little kid but having the presence of mine to immediately stand up straight, shoulders back, and look defiantly into the camera with a very serious expression on his face. Interesting body language to say the least.

      1. Samuel Conner

        The “my Boris Johnson” story featured at NC in the last day or two suggests that some of BJ’s reputation for improvisation may be undeserved; perhaps more nearly a well-rehearsed repertoire of tics and riffs that he has found to work well with certain audiences.

        It will be fascinating to watch the collision with reality.

        1. Samuel Conner

          My reaction to that story, which I did not have the presence of mind to comment on in the moment, was that BJ seemed to be ‘bluffing’ at bluffing. Is there such a thing as “meta-bluffing”?

          1. Susan the other`

            “meta-bluffing” – that’s a keeper; I think you are right because he is so comical and dangerous at the same time.

  12. Summer

    Is there any doubt that Johnson and his cabinet will be rewarded by someone or entity for delivering Brexit?

    Is that reward satisfactory enough for them and is winning an election only a nice cherry on top if it happens?

    I see a lot of analysis that may be based on reverence for institutions that I’m not seeing in some of these players.

      1. Summer

        I suspect alot of things are involved that don’t involve any real concern over elections. But they feel they have to go through the motions of being concerned about an election.

  13. larry

    Appointed Leader of the House by Johnson, Rees-Mogg, the honorable member for the eighteenth century, has just issued a style guide for those working in his office to follow. In the information about it so far, there is no indication about the Oxford comma. Oh, dear. Among the injunctions is the instruction to use Imperial measurements. No surprise there. This link shows the most information so far:

    1. larry

      Addendum: According to Kevin Rawlinson of the Guardian on 26 July 2019, Hansard has recorded more than 700 instances of Rees-Mogg using a number of his banned phrases or words. Hence, a case of do as I say, not as I do.

      Nerds may well note that Microsoft also recommends a double tap of the space bar after periods or full stops. This can be observed if the grammar checker has been turned on. This particular convention used to be standard many years ago.

    2. Synoia

      Appointed Leader of the House by Johnson, Rees-Mogg, the honorable member for the eighteenth century, and a member of the hanging and flogging party….

      Please do quote the Roots of the Conservative Party.

    1. vlade

      He’s going to take Corbyn apart regularly. Corbyn is not a good speaker, even less so an off-the-cuff speaker.

      Corbyn had trouble dealing with May(bot) in PMQs.

      TBH, I can’t see anyone in the current crop of Labour pols who could stand up to Johnson or Farage. Blair might have been able to.

    2. Anonymous2

      He is a good performer but you have to realise that you cannot trust a word the man says. Once you know that, the performance becomes far less impressive.

      1. Synoia

        Are you referring to Boris, Nigel or Tony?

        I’m having difficulty picking the target of your comment….

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