Boris Johnson’s swansong may well come quickly
An article by Marco Weber, economist at Union Investment
Most continental Europeans have probably been watching the recent events unfolding in London with disbelief. The UK government’s deadline for presenting a workable solution for an orderly exit from the European Union (EU) is just a few weeks away, on 31 October. But instead of focusing on finding a way out of this stand-off, the Johnson administration is confronted with a tsunami of events coming one after the other.
Painful legal blow for Johnson
Following a few weeks that have seriously tested the conventions of UK politics, Johnson first needs to lick his wounds. We should remember that not only has Johnson suffered crushing defeats in the House of Commons and the loss of his parliamentary majority, but the highest UK court has also put paid to his chosen political strategy. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the suspension of the UK parliament was unlawful. Yet Johnson has still not tired of flirting with a no-deal Brexit. Is the prime minister perhaps losing his way?
Law to prevent a disorderly exit
Not necessarily, because, in his view, there are good political reasons – on both the domestic and international front – for taking a hard line. Shortly before it was prorogued, the House of Commons stood up to Johnson and passed a law to prevent the United Kingdom from leaving the EU without a deal. Specifically, the law obliges the prime minister to ask the EU for a further postponement of the departure date to 31 January 2020 if the parliament does not agree to a withdrawal agreement or no-deal Brexit by 19 October. This date was not chosen at random. It is the day after the EU summit scheduled for 17 and 18 October, when the agenda will be dominated by Brexit. After the law was passed, Johnson said on the record that he would ignore it if necessary and would rather “lie dead in a ditch” than ask Brussels for a further extension. His main aim in making this statement was to maintain the negotiating pressure on the EU. Ultimately, this is nothing but a classic game of chicken between the United Kingdom and EU in which two sports cars head towards each other at high speed. The first to give way is the loser. Against this backdrop, the enormity of the Supreme Court’s ruling becomes all the more apparent because it greatly weakens Johnson’s negotiating position in Brussels. Or, metaphorically speaking, his sports car has been downgraded to a scooter.
London is not offering any alternatives to the backstop
So what will happen next in the seemingly unending Brexit drama? We predict that the departure date will be delayed and an early election will be called.
Firstly, there is still no viable alternative to the backstop. This sticking point for the withdrawal agreement currently on the table provides a kind of safety net for Ireland that is designed to prevent the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland becoming a hard external border of the European Union as a result of Brexit. If the EU and United Kingdom fail to reach a trade agreement during the transition phase, the United Kingdom would remain in the customs union under the backstop arrangements, while Northern Ireland would also stay in the European single market. This would ensure the unrestricted trading of goods and make border controls unnecessary. If the EU were to give way on this arrangement, creating a hard border on the island of Ireland, the Good Friday peace agreement signed in 1998 would potentially be put at risk. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, would be in danger of being permanently trapped in the customs union and would therefore be unable to enter into new trade deals with other countries.
Secondly, the EU is likely to agree to the United Kingdom’s request to delay the departure date. After all, a no-deal Brexit does not offer a solution for future cooperation between the United Kingdom and the EU. And the EU probably does not want to be left with the blame for failure of the exit negotiations.
A hard Brexit is not off the table
The outcome of an early election in the United Kingdom is a complete unknown. And this is where Johnson’s hard line could actually pay off in terms of domestic politics. The prime minister’s expected campaign tactics are: ‘the common people that voted for Brexit vs. the political establishment that is thwarting a democratic decision’. This stance could well help Johnson to win the election. Although the pro-EU camp is stronger overall, the votes will be split between several parties, including Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. The United Kingdom has a first-past-the-post voting system at constituency level (‘the winner takes it all’), so it is possible that the various remain parties will cannibalise each other’s votes.
One thing is certain: Boris Johnson’s swansong may well come very quickly. And the risk of a disorderly departure from the EU is very much still on the cards, and may simply have been delayed until the end of January 2020.
Unless otherwise noted, all information and illustrations are as at 29 September 2019