Back on the Brexit countdown

Ten days to go now until Britain leaves the European Union – unless before then the EU agrees to extend the deadline, as Boris Johnson, in a sort of superposition of states, has both requested and not requested.

There’s a common myth, beloved especially by Brexiters, that the EU has been blocking a hard Brexit. (Which, since that’s the only sort that the hard Brexiters accept as real, amounts by their lights to blocking Brexit tout court.) But it’s not true.

The sticking point from the EU’s point of view was always Ireland and the prevention of a hard border between north and south. That meant either keeping Britain in the customs union indefinitely – the “backstop” – or cutting Northern Ireland loose. Now that Johnson has accepted the latter, there’s no problem.

So it’s no great achievement for Johnson to have achieved the deal that he has; it was basically always available. His achievement is to have almost won parliamentary backing for it. On Saturday he came within 16 votes, and his underlying position is stronger still. He may well be able to win a vote this week, either for a fresh attempt at in-principle approval or on the second reading of withdrawal legislation.

How has he got this far? Part of the answer is fatigue, which Johnson has played on; many MPs (and their constituents) are desperate to be rid of the issue. But there’s also a widespread, sometimes wilful, failure to understand that hard Brexit is what is being proposed.

“Hard” and “soft” are end-state outcomes, not withdrawal terms. Johnson’s deal doesn’t make hard Brexit inevitable, just as Theresa May’s agreement didn’t make it impossible. If the deal goes through, that debate will still have to be had again, next year or the year after (which means the argument from fatigue is misguided).

The difference is in the defaults. If Britain exits under Johnson’s deal, and no further agreement is reached, then Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland) will drop out completely from the customs union and the single market at the end of 2020.

The EU can live with that. It’s not its ideal outcome, but it will have at least a year to prepare for any dislocation and it will inflict appropriate economic pain on the UK, which will serve as a deterrent to any other member that might be thinking about leaving.

And for Johnson it offers the chance for an election well before any of that pain becomes apparent, so that he can win a majority that will be proof against any attempt to soften the terms of exit.

The fact that the EU leadership is so strongly in favor of Johnson’s deal should logically give the Brexiters pause. In any other context they would be concerned about the Europeans having an ulterior motive, but not this time. Conversely, some of the pro-Europeans in the Conservative Party who are willing to vote for the deal may have been lulled into a false sense of security by the EU’s support.

There’s a theory, however, that the current deal is just a blind to achieve a no-deal departure now. I don’t think that’s very plausible as regards the intentions of Johnson himself, but it may account for some of the support he’s getting from the hard Brexters. That was the point of the Letwin amendment passed on Saturday: to prevent a situation where the deal was approved in principle but then defeated when it came to the detail of legislation, thus precipitating exit on 31 October without a deal.

As Ian Dunt put it, “If the Brexiters in the hardline ERG faction had behaved with more honour in the last few years, the amendment would not be necessary.” But trust is low on all sides at present.

Assuming Johnson isn’t secretly aiming at no-deal, it was perhaps a tactical error for him not to just accept the Letwin amendment. He would then have scored a moral victory by winning approval for his deal in principle, making it harder for the remainers to justify blocking the subsequent legislation.

Now, there’s time for scrutiny of the details with the principle still undecided. While Johnson seems to have the advantage, it may be that the breadth of his coalition will not survive that examination, and enough votes will peel off to either kill the legislation or load it with amendments that the hard Brexiters cannot accept – including, even, the obvious move of a confirmatory referendum.

The remainers can still win this, but it’s not going to be easy.


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