Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Will Johnson smuggle a bad Brexit through the coronavirus crisis? (Guardian)

23 May 2020


Note LO: I noticed this excellent opinion by Guardian columnist Rafael Behr several weeks ago, when Brexit was not really on my mind. Given the latest developments (eg, imminent UK tariffs) and the approaching June 30 Brexit extension deadline, this opinion is a worthwhile read.


Guardian title: Will Johnson smuggle a bad Brexit through the coronavirus crisis?

Guardian subtitle: As the June extension deadline looms, the prime minister’s priority will be to minimise damage to his personal brand and legacy

Author: Rafael Behr

Date: 6 May 2020

“When Boris Johnson was a journalist he was a notorious breacher of deadlines. Officials and ministers say he carried that attitude into politics. His career has been fuelled by adrenaline wrung from the last minute of every decision, which means he has probably not yet given much thought to Brexit transitional arrangements. They expire at the end of the year. If an extension is wanted, the deadline for seeking one is 30 June. In trade negotiating time, that is soon. But in coronavirus time it is a faraway horizon.

Making the case for a longer transition are trade specialists, economists and diplomats. They understand how hard it is to bridge the gap between London and Brussels in the time available, even without a pandemic. They dread the impact of talks failing amid a Covid-induced slump and can see that the crisis has slowed progress.

Veterans of Brexit talks worry about the absence of back channels in the current phase. Screen-to-screen negotiation is no substitute for meeting face to face, but the problem goes beyond the technical hurdles imposed by quarantine. A sensitive grasp of what makes Brussels tick was a disqualification for joining the Johnson administration, which is full of people who observe European motive from afar, through lenses smeared with paranoia and complacency.

To the hardline Eurosceptic, transition looks like a remainer trick to bind the UK into continental regulations with no say and money to pay. The case against prolonging that arrangement has three elements. First, deals are easy, and only traitors or cowards deny it. Second, Brexit is a fiery spirit, best downed in a single shot. Sipping is for wimps. Third, the UK gets what it wants by threatening to walk away. The EU will make concessions if Johnson looks wild enough to down the whole Brexit bottle.

Those arguments are as wrong now as they were in their 2016-19 heyday, but they still suit the prime minister’s temperament. He is convinced that brinksmanship worked last autumn; that the performance of running at the cliff and flapping his arms delivered a better deal than the one Theresa May had proposed. It is true that Johnson’s theatrical machismo produced results – but only in the domestic arena. It convinced hardliners that any deal bearing the “Boris” brand must be sound, which gave political cover for a retreat. The Tory leader withdrew behind a customs border in the Irish Sea, something he had previously rejected and still denies having conceded, although it is a legal fact of his deal.

The myth of Johnson as world champion at playing chicken against the EU encourages him to seek a rematch. That confidence is bolstered by the belief that Brexit cliff-edges are not things from which businesses drop, but launch pads from which nations soar. The “Canada-style” free-trade deal that Johnson is seeking would disrupt the flow of goods, but the cost is meant to be offset by gains in sovereignty.

The logistics industry forecasts a need for 50,000 new customs officials to keep the border fluid. That is more than the number of civil servants employed by the whole European commission, but of course those are wicked Brussels bureaucrats who impose foreign red tape, whereas any new financial burden comes wrapped in a marvellous bow of indigenous red, white and blue tape.

That Brexit model takes the true believer down a dangerous logical pathway: if a small deal is better than a big one, no deal is the best deal of all. If the goal is separation, why keep a bridge? That was bad economics in 2019, and it has since mutated into something worse. The new strain of no-deal argument going around Tory circles is that any cost from Brexit will be irrelevant compared to the upheaval caused bycoronavirus. No one will notice which bit of the hardship was caused by leaving the single market. And reconstruction will be streamlined without the need to deal with Brussels. In short, we know the house will be on fire later this year, so it is better to fan the flames than to save any of our existing stuff, because we want to build a new house and don’t like our neighbours anyway.

That is not necessarily Johnson’s view. He hitched a lift with the radical Brexit cult to carry his ambition. It matched his style combination of English nationalism worn with libertine swagger. It served him well as a campaign vehicle. But as a programme for government, it has limitations. Its methods make the country poorer.

That flaw has not done Johnson any harm yet. Experience has taught him that blame for anything Europe-related can be shifted abroad or on to domestic enemies. He will be tempted to try smuggling the economic pain of Brexit inside the bigger pain of Covid-19. But he might also never be as popular as he is now, at the crest of a national crisis. If there is a pragmatic compromise to be made, this is the moment. His subservient MPs would fall into line and not many voters would care, or even notice.

Tories who know Johnson well say that his overarching concerns have always been his place in history, and the need for it to be heroic. Last year that meant releasing the UK from the EU. Now it hangs on his handling of the pandemic. The prime minister’s Brexit calculations will flow exclusively from whatever he thinks does the least damage to his personal brand and legacy.

His crammer’s instinct is to ride a deadline and hope for the best. If he suspects that his status as a national champion will be dented by a European accident in December, he will swerve. But Johnson is a reckless, inattentive driver, and the only safe turning point is coming up soon. He could overshoot simply because he has not bothered to read the map or focus on dangers further down the road.”




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