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While this site has always depended heavily on the input of UK, Irish, and European readers to calibrate our Brexit analysis, we’re now at a juncture where internal-to-the-UK political considerations will have particularly heavy weight. Therefore, after an update and some further commentary, we’ll pose some questions to you.
Specifically, we think it is highly likely that Boris Johnson will resign before October 31. The question is which of the most likely paths would be best for his odds of returning as Prime Minister after a general election, which in turn hinges on which would help him at the expense of Farage.
We think our calls on Johnson so far have been pretty good, particularly considering his reputation for erraticness. We anticipated that he’d make a show of trying to win over foreign leaders, although he started a bit later than we expected. Was that to show to UK voters that he wasn’t anxious because the UK has a famously strong bargaining position? Or was it based on his sense of media timing, that there was no sense in trying to keep “a deal is nigh” news on the boil in August. We didn’t think it was likely that he’d go for the “sea border” option (Johnson has tied himself to the Ultras and they’d go mad) but we did acknowledge it was possible.
Today Johnson served up his plan to the EU Commission, which spat it out like a piece of rotten meat. Barnier even got testy. And you can see why. From the Guardian:
Northern Ireland would also stay aligned with EU standards on goods if Stormont agreed by December 2020, the end of the transition period, and then in a vote every four years.
But the UK has also requested that both sides commit at treaty level “never to conduct checks at the border” even if Stormont vetoes the arrangements laid out in the new 44-page Irish protocol.
And from the top of the story:
Boris Johnson appears to be fighting a losing battle to avoid Britain staying in the European Union beyond 31 October after Michel Barnier privately gave a scathing analysis of the prime minister’s new plan for the Irish border, describing it as a trap.
The European commission also refused to go into the secretive and intensive “tunnel” talks with the UK’s negotiators before a crunch summit on 17 October from which the UK had hoped to deliver a breakthrough deal.
Needless to say, Varadkar also gave thumb’s down.
In fact, it not only has been clear that the two sides were far apart, but reports over the last few weeks indicted that the EU side was getting even more frustrated and alarmed because the UK was introducing elements that widened the gap. Not going into intensive talks is the EU saying that there’s no point. This had seemed likely given the Government’s arrogance and cluelessness, along with considerable personal antipathy in the EU for Johnson. And on top of that, it has not gone unnoticed that if the EU and UK miraculously came to an agreement, this Parliament would not give Johnson that victory by approving his deal.
So all that is a surprising, and it should not be all that surprising, is the EU isn’t trying to pretty up the optics.
We did think Johnson would prorogue Parliament again because the Supreme Court ruling effectively said he could do that. And Johnson most assuredly wants the press platform of a Queen’s speech. Acknowledging the ruling, the Government is proposing a suspension of “the shortest time possible,” starting October 8, with the Queen’s Speech on October 14. This results in Parliament being suspended for only three working days. As we pointed out, Parliament has been somnolent, so MPs can hardly complain that being prorogued for a few days will do any real damage (although you can be sure some will nevertheless try).
Consider the timetable:
Queen’s speech Monday October 14
EU Council Wednesday October 16 to Thursday October 17
Benn Act letter seeking extension to be sent October 19
Also consider whether Johnson really wants a crash out or not. It is possible that he believed his own PR and really thought the EU would blink. Some press accounts assert that Johnson is actually afraid of a no deal. Johnson has gone all in, so even if he harbors doubts, he can’t change course now.
It seems close to certain that Johnson will not honor the Benn Act. He could resign after the EU Council and before or on October 19 (he would have to tell the Queen first).
Alternatively, Johnson may send in a letter but take steps to undermine it (various gambits have been leaked, so we won’t review them, but you can read a new one in The Mirror). That would subject Johnson to legal challenge. But subverting the Benn Act, as opposed to straight up non-compliance or quitting, would be more complex and uncertain legally and politically. It would also increase the odds that Johnson would be in office when the UK crashed out. Our sense is that is something he actually does not want.
Remember, before his optimal scenario was a general election right after Brexit, since in the first few days, many companies would hold back on shipment and have sufficient inventories that bad effects would seem to be low compared to all the tooth-gnashing. The scenario is now a later general election, and if a crash out were to occur, the dislocations would be piling up.
That it a long-winded way of saying that the best play for Johnson seems now to be to resign in a way that he can pin the blame for an extension on those meanie opponents. Is the path of maximum blame to take advantage of the press spotlight of the week of October 14 and go out with a dramatic high note? Or is it to defy the Benn Act and deal with legal wrangling and then quit when ordered by the Supreme Court to proceed? Alternatively, Parliament might in parallel try to get the EU to accept a letter from them….which is a precedent they do not want to set. Nevertheless, The Times (which when May was Prime Minister has the worst record on Brexit, regularly running extreme claims that proved to be all wet) says the EU would go around Johnson to grant an extension. Mind you, this could prove to be correct, but I’d like to see an independent report.
The problem I see is going past October 19 leaves Johnson at the mercy of legal and political countermoves, and he might not have a terrific time to quit if he waits.
Moreover, there is the not trivial problem of who is in charge were he to resign. My understanding is the departing Prime Minister is supposed to advise the Queen as to who to invite to form a new government. But Johnson could truthfully say there isn’t a candidate, and even go down the list of prime suspects and explain why.
Vlade argues for later rather than sooner on the assumption that Johnson wants or is indifferent to a crash out, while my assumption is he wants to make as clear as possible he did everything he could to block an extension. From vlade:
If he did it late October, it would create all sort of hell… And technically, he would comply with the law and possibly make so much chaos the UK would be out of the EU by default. Even though I have now heard that if that happened, if it did last just a few days, the EU could pretend it never happened and possibly get away with it – sort of
extend retrospectively. That could give enough time for GE (November, no-one would want to run it in December pre-Xmas). If Tory & co won, they would no-deal brexit, but that would be default, so no loss. If Lab&co won, who would complain and have standing?
The EU is very procedural and rule-driven, so I am skeptical of this “out a few days and back” scenario. It’s more likely the EU would fudge by giving an emergency mini-extension.
There is also the question of what the political cost would be if Johnson openly defied the Benn Act. That would be a bridge much further than original prorogation which many people argued, consistent with the English and Wales court ruling, was kosher.
Clive argued it would not make much difference and could even be a plus:
I’m not sure defying the Benn act will necessarily induce political blowback for Johnson — and it might easily create positive support for him.
The Parliamentary antics are a huge turn off for anyone but hardline Remain’ers. The Supreme Court’s lurch into adopting lawfare isn’t doing any favours either.
And the cherry on the top — a refusal by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to agree to an election — is a gift to Johnson which just keeps on giving.