Even though we are just past a Bank Holiday Monday, it seemed timely to check in on the state of Brexit, if nothing else because the G-7 meeting provided the opportunity for some posturing.
It is admittedly potentially hazardous to one’s reputation to speculate about what someone as fabulously erratic as Boris Johnson might do. Nevertheless, in his campaign for Prime Minister, Johnson looked to have committed himself so irrevocably to a Brexit on October 31 that it would be virtually impossible for him to change course, since it would take time to attempt to soften up the Tories. Plus it would also take time for the gravity of a Brexit to penetrate as well.
So far, Johnson has acted in line with our expectations. We anticipated that he’d go visit European leaders while Parliament was away on summer recess if nothing else so as to appear to be Doing Something, and if he got lucky, to get remarks that No. 10 and the credulous press could play up as signs of progress.
One minor deviation was that Johnson was slower to hit the road than he could have been, but perhaps that reflects Johnson’s desire not to look eager combined with his faith that the EU will blink.
Angela Merkel gave Johnson reason to hope regarding the non-binding description of the future relationship, which predictably was played up by the Government and the press as a Johnson breakthrough. I wondered if this was Merkel yet again being her cautious self or whether she was toying with Johnson. She made a later remark which if she was not trying to make sport, was unhinged, as in suggesting that since the EU and UK would eventually have to come to terms in a trade deal, why not get it done in 30 days? She can’t be so clueless as to not understand that even the US, which dictates terms in its trade agreements, still takes over a year, and more like two, to get them done. And can she have missed that the relatively uncontentious deal with Canada took seven years to negotiate?
Needless to say, in Johnson’s next head of state meeting with Macron, after Merkel’s first chipper-sounding remarks, , the misguided optimism was put paid. And in terms of substance, the EU has made clear that even if it were to renegotiate, a new Withdrawal Agreement would be substantively the same as the old, but if the UK wants to put a concrete proposal forward, they’ll entertain it. Notice that despite Johnson making an articulate case as to why the Withdrawal Agreement was a non-starter for the UK, he has yet to provide an alternative.
We’re in Groundhog Day territory yet again, with the tired threat of not paying the so-called divorce tab again rearing it ugly head. It is quite astonishing that most of what passes for the elites in the UK seem not to grasp that Brexit is not the end of the road, but merely an irrevocable first step in what will be a long and taxing process of forging new trade agreements with the rest of the world and making significant legal, economic, and lifestyle changes as a result of that. Those of you who are keeping tabs on the finer points of the Brexit negotiations likely took note of Barnier saying that any trade deal with the EU would require the UK to commit to the main points of the Withdrawal Agreement, in particular, the exit bill, the provisions regarding movement of people, and something a lot like the backstop (Clive pointed out it would be very hard to devise an analogue to the backstop arrangements absent a transition period, which comes only with a Withdrawal Agreement).
Nevertheless, some people are taking UK’s latest justifications in the right spirit (hat tip guurst, who encourages you to read the comments):
Hotdog vendor: "That'll be 3.50"
Me: "No thanks. I've paid. Paid in blood. Blood spilled in 1380 on the field of Kulikovo, defeating the Tartars of the Mongol Golden Horde for Prince Dmitri, henceforth known as 'Donskoy'."
Me: "Can I get some mustard though?" https://t.co/jMpGkw2Tpm
— Dmitry Grozoubinski (@DmitryOpines) August 26, 2019
Another controversy is that Johnson has asked attorney general Geoffrey Cox whether Parliament could be prorogued for five weeks starting September 9. Recall that the normal Parliament session would have it be in recess for three weeks, from mid-September to early October. Nevertheless, this Parliament might choose to dispense with that, and in any event, five weeks is not three weeks.
The press reaction was explosive, but it also made clear that the only recourse would be to go to court, and that might take time when time is of the essence.
Substantively, Johnson’s inquiry into suspending Parliament suggests he’s worried about the one way his pet Brexit could be cashiered…by cashiering him with a no confidence vote. But even then, it’s not clear he’d be beaten despite his lack of political legitimacy, in terms of having been installed by a mere 100,000 or so voters. Even though pro-Remain Tories might defect, whip counts so far have found their numbers would be at least matched by pro-Brexit Labour MPs who’d abstain.
Further, as readers have discussed at some length, the last date for holding a vote of no confidence in time to hold new elections before Brexit has already passed. And again, as discussed, the idea of using the 14 days before a new election to form a government of national unity is going nowhere thanks to Labour-LibDem rivalry. That is not going down well in some circles:
The Lib Dems couldn't care less about stopping Brexit, so long as Corbyn gets the blame for failing to stop it. Swinson's stance is purely about positioning.
— David Osland (@David__Osland) August 26, 2019
We also have tired old unicorns prancing around:
Corbyn could not be clearer: No Deal is an attack on the working class – and Labour will give us the chance to stop Brexit altogether in a Final Say referendum … https://t.co/MOfqN2Evom
— Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) August 27, 2019
And unhappiness with Labour posturing:
Corbyn: "What can I do to convince people I'm not a useless fence sitter over #Brexit?:
Seamus Milne: "Call it a no deal BANKERS Brexit!"
Corbyn: "But didn't all the big banks donate to the remain campaign."
Seamus Milne: "Ssshhh! Not so loud!" https://t.co/Ce8qdYMxQl
— Alexander Hall (@AEHALL1983) August 26, 2019
One thing that has happened despite the apparent lack of movement is that it’s now widely recognized that a crash out is the most likely outcome. Yet businesses seem oddly somnolent despite how little time is left. And it’s not as if most of the Europe seems adequately concerned either.
Bronwen Maddox, a director of the Institute for Government, wrote a comment for the Financial Times which has the feeling that the author felt a need to state what ought to be obvious:
The coming weeks will show whether the UK parliament can find a way to block no-deal. But the assumption made by spectators of this extraordinary piece of theatre, in which the nation’s future is being improvised from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, must be that no deal is the most likely outcome….
It is no surprise, then, that the prospect of no deal is taking all the oxygen in government — all that is left, that is, by the planning for a general election.
I’m wondering when Johnson will finally get that the EU really will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. My sense is he still believes his own rhetoric and believes the EU will relent at the last minute. Does he simply try to refine his “blame the EU” talk? Because even now, he’s running out of options.