Before the referendum, David Davis thought that the Brexit process would be straightforward. ‘The first calling point of the UK’s negotiator immediately after Brexit will not be Brussels,’ he said. ‘It will be Berlin, to strike a deal.’ When he ended up as Brexit negotiator, he found the European Union to be disciplined, united and formidable — while his own side was unruly, divided and depressingly ineffective. Boris Johnson took over as Prime Minister at a time when the situation looked utterly hopeless. To many, it still does.
But the progress made in recent negotiations is a vindication of the Prime Minister’s approach: to go back to Brussels with the genuine prospect that Britain would leave with no deal on 31 October. The EU started off by saying it would never reopen the withdrawal agreement, but with no deal back in prospect, compromise — and thus progress — has been possible. And yes, parliament has said it would force the Prime Minister to ask for an extension of EU membership; but No. 10 said it would find a way to not do so. It seems that this was enough to focus minds in Brussels.
Of course, if Britain were to leave with no deal, it would end up being a staging post to a free trade deal agreed with the EU in due course. Even a deal is a misnomer: the term is really a verbal formula that allows the UK to say it has left, while remaining a non-voting EU member and muddling through until the end of next year.
And what happens then? The final Brexit deal would need to be agreed in a second wave of negotiations, to be led by whoever the prime minister is at that point.
It has become a commonplace to say that history will not treat someone or other kindly, but in Johnson’s case history could scarcely be any less sympathetic than many of his critics already have been. He has been dismissed as a fraud and a joke; any success in Brussels will be dressed up as a failure or a humiliation.
Yes, Boris has made his fair share of mistakes. The prorogation of parliament backfired badly, and No. 10 did not imagine that Labour would refuse his call for a general election. But a more elegant solution was never available. He always had an easy riposte to his critics: what would they have him do? What course of action is more likely to settle this amicably? He could hardly resign and invite Jeremy Corbyn to lead a caretaker government — passing No. 10 to a man he claims is a danger to national security and supremely unfit for the office. If the House of Commons votes for a second referendum, that would likely lead to another Brexit victory and take us back to where we are now. To push through Theresa May’s deal for a fourth time would have been impossible with the MPs ranged against it. But to go for a modified version of that deal — as he ended up doing — was the most sensible compromise. Perhaps the only sensible compromise.
Even if it works — and it remains an agonisingly big ‘if’ — an electoral benefit is not guaranteed. As Churchill found to his cost in 1945, the British do not tend to view elections as a chance to reward a government for past achievements — they will be looking ahead to see how a Johnson government might use a Commons majority.
We gained an insight into this through this week’s Queen’s Speech: it’s a pitch for the Labour Leave constituencies, with emphasis placed on health spending, school spending and controlling crime. We can expect him to take the George Osborne approach to tax cuts: in favour of them in theory, but never quite finding the right moment to implement them. With an election approaching, the Tories will promise more spending — and more debt to pay for it. As the coming budget will likely attest, austerity is over.
But what the electorate deserve to know above all else is: how is Boris Johnson going to make use of the trade and legislative freedoms for which he campaigned in the EU referendum? Without a coherent vision for this, Brexit will have been a waste of time. The Conservatives should not be shy. They should unashamedly seek to break the protectionist shackles which have held back the EU when trading with the rest of the world. Theresa May’s government was marked by a failure to explain what Brexit is for. Johnson rightly mocked her for it. But we could be hearing a lot more about his idea.
The coming general election will provide a greater contrast between the social and economic policies of the two main parties than has been seen since 1983. It will decide what sort of country post-Brexit Britain is to become: interventionist, large government, with a return to union power; or economically liberal, championing the rights of people and communities to make their own decisions. If the Conservatives become the Brexit party with nothing much to say beyond Brexit, then they are doomed.
When Boris Johnson declared that he would leave the EU by 31 October, it was seen as an impossibly ambitious goal. But even if he managed this, he would then have to win a parliamentary majority, keep the union together, stave off recession and agree a second Brexit deal. His premiership will be an ongoing high-wire act. The Prime Minister has always thought of himself as being blessed with good luck. He’ll need it.
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