Therese Raphael – Bloomberg
A new British prime minister has tabled a new Brexit proposal, leading to a new set of negotiations and even, potentially, a new parliamentary vote. He may or may not survive. If this sounds like deja vu after the similar thwarted efforts of his predecessor, it is and it isn’t.
There are two things that make Brexit devilishly complex. One is what Boris Johnson referred to dismissively in his party conference speech on Wednesday as a “technical discussion” with those tiresome functionaries at the European Union. The other is politics. The technical and the political are, of course, intertwined, but there can be no Brexit deal unless it threads both needles.
Theresa May’s deal with the EU, which established the now-infamous Irish backstop (a guarantee of no hard border between north and south) seemed to solve the technical problem but at the expense of the politics. It kept the crossing between Northern Ireland and Ireland free from any infrastructure and the EU’s single market intact, but it tied the UK into the EU’s customs union. That was a non-starter to nearly everyone, since it made the UK a rule-taker and prevented independent trade deals, a key Brexiter demand.
Johnson’s aim is different: He wants to solve the political conundrum first by stitching together a parliamentary majority, either by bringing the reluctant House of Commons into line to support his own Brexit deal, or by changing Parliament into a more Brexit-friendly place via a general election.
His chief strategist Dominic Cummings is fond of talking about “branching histories,” the different turn events in the past might have taken. Johnson has built an election strategy that fits multiple possible outcomes.
We should take him at his word when he says he wants a deal. A no-deal Brexit would be hugely disruptive, however much Johnson insists the country is ready. If he can do what May failed to achieve and design a deal that wins parliamentary approval, that might help him win an election as the man who delivered on his promise to “get Brexit done.” His chances look better than May’s were on the current parliamentary arithmetic. He’s much more likely to retain the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party and the hard-Brexit wing of his own party, as well as some Labour MPs from leave-voting ares.
But he’s also a realist; he knows his proposed plan breaks the EU’s red lines and could easily be rejected by Brussels.
To summarize, the new UK offer is to keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s regulatory zone so that food, agriculture and other products could cross the Irish border freely and not be subject to checks. That preserves some 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) of yearly border trade and keeps the EU’s single market intact.
But, after a transition period, Northern Ireland would leave the EU’s customs union along with the rest of the UK, allowing Britain to negotiate its own trade deals. That creates the need for customs checks on the Irish border with the north, which Johnson proposes will take place not close to the border itself but “on a decentralized basis” using electronic paperwork, with a few physical checks along the supply chain.
This approach imposes costs on businesses, inevitably, but it also creates technical challenges, significant data-transfer requirements and the potential for abuse. It requires high levels of public confidence, something that’s fragile at best in Northern Ireland.
There are other sticking points in the Johnson proposal. The Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont would have to consent to these arrangements before they kicked in next year, and then repeat its approval every four years, something the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker suggests is problematic (a fair point given that Stormont is suspended currently). The UK doesn’t say what happens if Northern Ireland decides it doesn’t want regulatory convergence with the EU.
It would have been surprising if the EU, eager to avoid blame for the collapse of negotiations, rejected Johnson outright. But early indications are that his proposals just won’t cut it. While the prime minister has vowed not to seek an extension of the Oct. 31 departure day (saying it would lead to the “extinction” of the Tory Party), a Scottish court will hear a case on Friday about whether he can be compelled to do so by Parliament. It may well end up back in the UK Supreme Court.
That no longer bothers the Tories as much as it did. Whether or not his Brexit plan flies or crashes, the important thing for Johnson is that he has constructed a compelling story to tell the electorate. A vote for him is a vote to get the Brexit albatross off the country’s neck and then move on to strengthening the National Health Service, getting tougher on crime and building lots of infrastructure. It’s a pretty little fantasy given the years of hard negotiations that lie ahead even after a no-deal exit, but the public are weary of the stalemate.
If the negotiations with Brussels break down or can’t get over the line in time, Johnson is prepared. He will blame the EU for a “failure of statecraft” and his current parliament for blocking “the will of the people” by not delivering on the result of the 2016 referendum. Most people I spoke to at the party conference in Manchester seemed to think Johnson will be forced to accept an extension; but that voters wouldn’t blame him for that.
Johnson, in other words, is prepared for different outcomes. In his speech on Wednesday, he gave party members a show of bravura, a sense of righteousness and plenty of laughs. His Brexit plan may be convoluted and unworkable, but from the party perspective he’s perhaps done something more important: devised an election strategy that looks winnable in most scenarios. Victory or defeat in Brussels? That isn’t the battle that matters to him now.