A Brexit crash out looks baked in. Johnson has stuck to the path we deemed most likely: first making a show of meeting EU leaders and then engage in negotiation theater to keep up the appearance that a deal might be possible so as to keep Parliament at bay.
But even with Johnson overplaying his hand via his proroguing stunt and jolting the opposition into a higher gear, the odds seem awfully slim of steering out of no deal Brexit. And the irony is Johnson may actually believe that he’s engaging in brinksmanship that will force the EU to capitulate to the UK’s demands on the backstop. Or that his Government, chock full of Project Leave campaigners, really is grotesquely incompetent even by the low standards set by Theresa May’s ministers (of which Johnson was a prominent member)
The very fact that not much is happening save a lot of posturing by UK pols is a sign that the action is taking place in the wrong theater. To recap what most of you likely know: last week, Finland and France demanded that the UK present its proposals for the Irish backstop by September 30 or not bother. This is a wee bit more serious than you might think, since the Finnish Prime Minister is now the head of the EU Council. And in fact, this deadline is later than the time it would take to negotiate a deal (charitably assuming the UK served up something workable) and get it in final enough for for the EU Council to consider it. In other words, in the highly unlikely scenario that the UK and EU were on track to a new arrangement, it’s inconceivable that it would be finalized, approved by the EU Council, and then approved by the various parliaments where approvals were necessary by October 31. Johnson would need to get an extension, which would be a Brexit Party wet dream.
Johnson is not so clueless that he has missed the timing problem. From Richard North:
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is said to have told colleagues that he did not expect to find a “legally operable” solution before the crunch talks with the EU on 17 October, the date when a deal is supposed to be put to bed.Johnson is thus suggesting that both sides will need to flesh out details after the European Council, leaving the EU having to agree in principle a deal without knowing the details. One can see that going down about as well as a bucket of cold sick.
There was further confirmation that Johnson isn’t serious about negotiating with the EU, or is deluded enough think the EU is willing to break the Single Market because the UK insists on it. Despite the bluster about not being bullied by meanie France and Finland, the UK did show up in Brussels last week with what it said were backstop proposals. Sort of.
The dismissive way that the UK’s Brexit negotiators treated their EU counterparts suggests that they aren’t just going through the motions for the benefit of the domestic audience. They might also be trying to goad an EU official to make an angry remark which would then be spun as EU bias or desperation.
The UK has regularly served up Brexit position documents that were embarrassing by virtue of having a lot of puffery and very little substance. But May’s team at least tried to maintain appearances. By contrast, the UK apparently made a big point of calling its offerings informal discussion papers, or “non papers”. And non-papers they were! There were only three, one page each.
If that wasn’t arrogant enough, Barclay, in a meeting with Michel Barnier drove the point home with demands that were obvious non-starters. After the France/Finland pressure for September 30 proposals, Barclay asked to have until the end of 2020 to sort some things out. Ahem, in negotiating a complex deal, some items wind up being traded against others, and accordingly, Barnier said more than once, “Nothing is settled until everything is settled.”
Moreover, the UK demanded that its napkin-doodle documents be treated as state secrets, with distribution limited to the Commission’s negotiating team as “Her Majesty’s government property”, meaning they be withheld from EU 27 diplomats. This looks to be another move to annoy Brussels and throw sand into the gears.
Oh, and the UK asked for huge waivers….just because (as in no concession was offered). From the Financial Times:
The commission told diplomats that current UK proposals “fall short of satisfying all the objectives” the backstop was designed to achieve, according to a diplomatic note seen by the FT.
The commission told EU27 diplomats that the British proposals amounted to the UK getting huge carve-outs from EU single market rules by allowing for customs checks away from the border and on the site of companies. The UK also wants new simplified electronic trusted trader schemes to operate across the Northern Irish border.
“These ideas are not compatible with the EU custom codes” said the commission.
Mind you, we’ve seen the UK do Groundhog Day for the better part of Theresa May’s time in office, forcing the EU into creative variants of “What about ‘no’ don’t you understand?” So it is remotely possible that this lot doesn’t get it. But it’s still hard to believe that people who can fake competence well enough to get elected are that thick.
However, Johnson’s moves seem less illogical once one appreciates that for him, hoping the EU blinks and accepting a no deal if it doesn’t is the best option. His only theoretical alternative, the so-called “sea border,” is a non-starter. From Jonathan Lis in Politics.co.uk:
There is no replacement for the backstop which will satisfy everyone’s red lines…
That is why the only realistic solution in the time-frame is the one suggested by Brussels from the start: a Northern Ireland-only backstop. It’s the only deal Ireland will agree to. It’s the only deal ready to sign off. And it’s the only deal that comes close to solving Johnson’s predicament. Sadly for the prime minister, this deal will also destroy him….
So what happens if Johnson finally relents and brings it before parliament? Put simply, it disintegrates. The DUP could never support it in its current form….
The DUP’s hostility would also provoke serious consternation on the Tory backbenches. It is, after all, named the Conservative and Unionist Party, and it is hard to see how they might back a deal which Theresa May insisted (and Johnson agreed) no British prime minister could ever accept. It is not just the ERG which would rebel. More moderate Tories would also join battle.
Johnson therefore needs to bring over supporters from the other side of the House. It is hard to see from where. The SNP, Lib Dems, Change, Plaid and Greens, along with a few of the purged independent Tories, are not going to vote for any Brexit deal. The Labour leadership would only ever whip for one with a confirmatory referendum attached to it. Now there is a law effectively stopping no-deal on October 31st, several of the would-be Labour Leavers would also feel far less pressure to back it. Who wants to tell their constituents that they signed up to a Tory Brexit, saving Boris Johnson’s skin, for absolutely nothing in return?
Johnson’s woes would not end there. Faced with a May-style ‘betrayal’, the Brexit hardliners would quickly move to defenestrate him. Steve Baker and his ERG colleagues owe Johnson no personal loyalty and have no direct interest in seeing him remain as leader. Johnson could quickly face an internal vote of no-confidence, probably at the same time as Jeremy Corbyn launched one in parliament. Needless to say, Nigel Farage would enjoy every second of it, and capitalise to the full in the ensuing election campaign.
Via e-mail, Clive confirmed this take:
Even if the EU27 would go for it, there’s no way the currently-constituted UK Parliament would vote anything through right now because if the Conservatives put forward an all-Ireland solution, no matter what that was, the other parties would be bound to reject it because their policies are either cancel Brexit (the Liberal Democrats) or some flaky notion of a closer “alignment to the EU” (Labour). Neither the Liberal Democrats nor Labour would give political air cover to what they’d much prefer to label as “the damaging Tory Brexit”.
Which kind-of proves that the UK isn’t negotiating in good faith. No matter what Labour or the Liberal Democrats say, the reality is they’re resigned to some sort of Brexit or at least, if not now, then it being a perpetual insoluble political issue for them — so it might as well be the Conservatives who get to be the dog that caught their car and then have to take the flack for it.
But haven’t we ignored that Supreme Court case, that could find that Johnson misled the Queen? Even so, it’s not clear that its presumed remedy, getting Parliament back in session, would make much difference, although the optics would be terrible for Johnson. Parliament has already taken its big shot with the Benn Act, which requires Johnson to seek an extension to January 31 and to come back and get Parliamentary approval if the EU serves up something different.
Johnson has already said he plans to defy it, and his team is looking at ways to fake comply. It’s entirely possible that Johnson could send in a note that says, “I’ve been ordered to ask you for an extension and here is why you shouldn’t give us one.” He could go through all the polling math and other reason that there isn’t a Brexit consensus, and dragging things out will just create more uncertainty for business as well as keep the UK as a pest in the European Parliament. The EU can be in the business of giving the UK never-ending extensions, or can put the UK out of its misery.
Of course, the EU would still likely give an extension even with a missive like that, but you can be sure it would be short, and maybe not even to January 31 as requested to make the point (a crash out over the relatively dead beginning of the year period might not be bad save for it being the period of lowest liquidity in the financial markets). And if UK MPs try to do an end run around the Prime Minister, the display of constitutional disorder would not inspire the EU to give the UK any more than a short lifeline. Of course, the UK would get a new chief negotiator and a new European Commissioner, the current EU Council head, who is in place through the end of the year, is not in their favor. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel takes office on December 1. Michel is thick with Macron and Macron is the lead hardliner on Brexit.
Another variant is the “Parliament takes back control” battle cry. And how does that work, exactly? The current caucus shows Labour can’t even agree on Brexit. There are too many anti-Brexit themes that various interests have adopted for Parliament to drive the bus in any direction. The EU has to recognize this. Thus while it will politely accept meetings from anyone in a sufficiently influential position, it’s hard to see the EU being keen about dealing with Parliament, even if it were able to find it procedurally valid under EU rules. It would be guaranteed to be more shabolic even than dealing with the May and Johnson governments.
Yesterday in comments, PlutoniumKun pointed out:
It’s becoming more and more clear that Johnson is not interested in serious negotiations, he thinks a no-deal will favour him – and given the way Corbyn and the Labour party seem determined to shoot themselves in the foot at the wrong moment, he may be right. All things considered, the Tory Party is still doing remarkably well in polling and could well win an election, despite all the evidence of depravity and incompetence.
I don’t normally have the stomach to read much British right wing media but I had a browse through a local newstand yesterday and even allowing for the fact that the Irish editions of those papers are heavily edited to remove anti-Irish content, the mendacity is stunning. The millions of Britons reading the Mail, Telegraph, Sun, Express, Times are being fed completely fictitious nonsense. Apparently the EU is on the verge of giving in and presenting Boris a victorious new deal and only the evil Irish and French and Spanish could stop this (or something like that, they don’t really make much sense). Read them and then compare with the linked article – its two entirely different worlds.
This degree of misrepresentation matters because it sets up smaller and even some larger businesses in the UK to continue to be woefully underprepared for a crash out. And the persistent “Blame the EU,” which has been a staple of Tory politics, is sure to become a new cry when Brexit dislocations become painful. Surely this can’t be how it was destined to go; the EU must be deliberately sabotaging the UK.
I’d love to be wrong about the last point. Do any readers have a window on the state of UK preparedness? The big banks generally seem to have it fairly well in hand but they are famously bloody-minded about hiring and firing and appear to have though about the needed staff and legal reconfigurations early on. That does not necessarily mean they will all handle a sterling crisis well.
Any anecdotes or data on UK business preparations for Brexit appreciated, and particularly whether they see an October 31 crash out as odds on.