The two sides of the government’s Brexit plan were on full display this week as Boris Johnson embarked on a two-day trip to Germany and France. He met chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday and initially accepted her timetable of 30 days to create an alternative to the controversial Northern Ireland Backstop, a deadline Merkel has since said was a miscommunication. His trip to Paris presented less than pleasing news however, when president Macron declared the Irish backstop as being “indispensable” to any Brexit deal.
While Johnson spent the best part of the week appearing positive about the chances of securing a deal, at home the rhetoric around a no-deal Brexit intensified. The government has barred British officials from attending many EU meetings from September onwards in a bid to “unshackle” them from day-to-day EU business and prepare for a no-deal exit. No-deal, however, could lead to shortages of food and medicine, according to a document released by the Sunday Times last weekend. Here is our analysis of the four most important developments in politics this week and where it leaves the Johnson government heading into the new parliamentary term.
Johnson’s European tour
While most people expect that Boris will fail to negotiate a new deal with the European Union, especially because of his demands for the complete removal of the backstop, Johnson is still acting as if he can secure a deal. In his meeting with Angela Merkel, Johnson pledged to come forward with proposals, often dubbed “alternative arrangements”, which would remove the need for the backstop and still allow for free trade across the Irish border. Brexiteers have placed their hopes in the Alternative Arrangements Commission to find these new solutions, but the EU has so far refused to accept any proposals the group has come up with; a situation that is unlikely to change.
There was initial positivity for the government when Merkel appeared to offer Johnson 30 days to come up with an alternative plan, although these hopes were quickly dashed when Merkel clarified that she simply meant that the UK only had a short time to present new proposals, as opposed to setting a concrete timetable. The editor of the Bild newspaper in Germany, Julian Reichelt, commented that Merkel will only seek a solution to the Brexit impasse that allows her to save face and not appear to cave in to Johnson. Instead, he predicts that Merkel and the EU will allow the UK to leave with no-deal but will sign so many side agreements that effectively add up to a deal in all but name. This policy would allow both the EU and UK to publically hold the line on their set positions, while using this political cover to find pragmatic solutions.
Emmanuel Macron also stuck to the EU script yesterday afternoon, putting the onus on Britain to make any new proposals “visible” to the EU. The French president similarly reiterated the importance of the backstop for the stability of Ireland and pushed back on Johnson’s insistence that the backstop must be eliminated for a deal to be acceptable to the UK. While Johnson believes that removing the backstop would allow him to pass a deal through parliament, prominent Brexiteers have rejected this. Theresa May’s former Brexit secretary David Davis stated that he would still not be able to support the withdrawal agreement if the only change was the removal of the backstop. This is typical of the evolution of many Brexiteers, and no-deal is now the only acceptable option to many. With the UK and EU no closer to a deal, the government’s pledge to leave the EU on 31 October “do or die”, kicked up another notch this week.
BoJo orders a no-show
This week the Brexit department announced that British officials won’t attend EU meetings as of September, unless the UK has a “significant national interest in the outcome of discussions” such as in areas of security policy. In what seems to be a strange interpretation of taking back control, the UK is set to hand over its vote in most instances to EU Council President Finland.
The official reason for the UK’s planned non-attendance is that the UK wants to let officials prepare for exit on 31 October, deal or no-deal and that ministers and officials need to spend as much time as possible planning for this. Many in the EU believe that this move is designed for domestic media consumption, with many Brexit supporting outlets lapping up the news. It is also seen as part of the government’s plan to ensure the country knows the UK is serious about leaving the EU without a deal if necessary. Even if parliament is successful in blocking a no-deal Brexit, if Johnson can convince the public that the only reason the UK has not left the EU is due to remainer MPs stopping him, that creates the perfect narrative for a parliament vs the people general election, whether that be voluntary or enforced via a vote of no confidence.
While Boris has been trying to convince the public and the EU of his determination to leave the EU by the end of October, most likely with no-deal, questions continue to be raised as to how prepared the UK is for this. At the weekend, the Sunday Times obtained a full government report on the UK’s readiness for Brexit, known as Operation Yellowhammer. This stated the UK could expect a likely hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, as well as food and medicines shortages. Despite the leaked document being dated as 1 August, the government attempted to spin the report as old news and that much more preparation had been undertaken in the following weeks. While it is clear that someone privy to this information who opposes no-deal is the likely leaker, it still raises significant questions as to how confident the government can be that these issues are avoidable.
This was only intensified this week as the leaders of 17 royal colleges and health charities wrote to the prime minister to state that they were not able to “reassure patients that their health and care won’t be negatively impacted by the UK’s exit from the EU”. The letter goes on to reference uncertainties surrounding the supply of medicines, especially produce that can’t be stockpiled. While Brexiteers are likely to brand this letter and the Operation Yellowhammer leak as the next stage of Project Fear, for remainers in parliament, all this will do is harden their opposition to no-deal and embolden them in their attempts to stop it by any means possible.
This week Johnson has tried to have it both ways on Brexit. For his EU counterparts he has been playing up just how much he wants to secure a deal, as long as the backstop is removed. By prematurely jumping on Merkel’s “30 day” comments the prime minister sorely underestimated the resolve that many of his backbench Brexiteer colleagues now have to any deal at all, even if he succeeds in his very unlikely mission to remove the backstop. While Johnson knows he needs to show how serious he is about leaving with no-deal if necessary, the reality is that this decision could be taken out of his hands. Parliament is set to use any and all procedural tricks to legislate to stop a no-deal, including even potentially bringing the government down in a vote of no confidence and installing a temporary government of national unity. Johnson is well aware of this fact, and it is wise to interpret the actions of the last week as political posturing ahead of a widely expected autumn election. By ensuring parliament is seen to thwart his determination to leave with no-deal if the backstop is not removed, the prime minister has the perfect narrative for a general election campaign that will no doubt be framed as parliament vs the people.
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