Yesterday’s government announcement that Parliament is to be prorogued for much of the next few weeks until the Queen’s Speech, plus the reaction this has detonated by greatly reducing the time available for Remainer MPs to block Brexit, has created the general impression that Prime Minister Boris Johnson intends the UK to leave the EU with no deal.
Remainer-world has gone into scarcely believable meltdown as a result. Brexiteers are thrilled. They shouldn’t be. The danger of a faux-Brexit is now in some ways even more acute than it ever was.
Two factors have been needed to keep the government honest and deliver a clean Brexit: the electoral threat of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and EU intransigence.
On the reasonable assumption that the EU is never going to run up the white flag and make a deal in the UK’s interests, any potential deal is therefore bound to be bad for Britain by keeping it tied to the EU to some degree. It’s therefore essential for a clean Brexit that the EU make no concessions that the British government can present falsely to the public as a good deal but will once again be Brexit-in-name-only.
A clean Brexit thus requires the EU to remain intransigent. EU intransigence in turn requires the EU to believe that Parliament will block a no-deal Brexit. If the threat to the EU of no-deal is removed, it has no incentive to make any concessions. It would continue to assume that Brexit would either be kicked into the long grass or the British government would get Parliament finally to accept a bad deal in the EU’s interests.
The game Johnson is playing became clear with yesterday’s announcement of the prorogation. By displaying ruthless determination to squash the proposed Remainer revolt, he is showing the EU that he is deadly serious about being prepared to leave with no deal. This is intended to frighten the EU into making concessions. MPs will be neutralised; a terrified EU makes concessions at the last minute; Johnson delivers Brexit on October 31; Johnson wins and the nation sighs with relief.
There is one major problem with this happy scenario. That is the nature of the concessions Johnson will regard as a victory. For he has identified only the Irish backstop as an obstacle. Getting rid of the backstop is the only concession he has requested.
But that means he is in effect trying to improve Theresa May’s terrible deal — which he previously told us was dead in the water (but for which he did in fact vote on its third iteration in the Commons, thus destroying any trust in his resolve on this issue).
As I wrote here yesterday, there are plenty of other reasons why that deal was so bad it united both Brexiteers and Remainers against it. In particular, its legally enforceable Political Declaration would keep the UK tied to the EU legally and economically. But is seems that if the backstop were to be removed, Johnson would accept the rest of the May deal’s terms.
The Europeans have said consistently that removing the backstop is not an option. Following his meting with them last week, however, Johnson seems to believe their position has softened.
One EU official commented that they expected the UK to present new ideas for a deal towards the end of October, shortly before the UK is due to leave.
But however ingenious and brilliant the UK proposal may be, it will only concern the backstop. So in the unlikely but now more-likely-than-it-was event that the EU will agree to whatever cunning plan about the backstop Sir Humphrey lays before them, any new deal is likely to prove another May-style trap.
Most Brexiteer MPs, alas, have soft backbones. If they are faced very close to October 31 with a rotten Brexit-in-name-only deal but without the backstop, they may prove vulnerable to the ultimatum the government will be presenting to both Remainer ultras and clean-break Brexiteers alike: accept the Johnson deal or open the way to a general election, a possible Corbyn government and the loss of Brexit altogether.
So here’s the paradox. To keep Johnson honest and deliver a clean Brexit, the Remainer rebels need to be regarded by the EU as as a credible threat to Brexit so that the EU continues to believe no-deal will never happen.
Of course the Remainer plotters may bring Boris Johnson down. But if Johnson neutralises the Remainers and no-deal becomes a live prospect, the EU may well make dangerous concessions.
The danger is even greater now because of the astounding reaction to the prorogation. Johnson has been accused of ripping up the constitution, torching democracy, behaving like a dictator and mounting a coup. One Labour MP suggested the Queen should be deposed for signing the prorogation; children’s author Philip Pullman even suggested that Johnson should be lynched from the nearest lamp-post.
However, just like the way unhinged Democrat attacks shore up President Donald Trump’s vote in the US, the more Remainers behave as if they’ve lost their minds the more the public will back Boris Johnson.
For if the public were already furious at the proposed conspiracy to up-end Parliamentary procedure by Remainers and the “Bollocks to Brexit!” Speaker of the House of Commons (and they are indeed beyond enraged), they have now been electrified by Johnson’s adroit use of constitutionally proper manoeuvres to fend off the real coup against the the constitution that was being cooked up. The more Remainers foam that Johnson is destroying democracy, the more those who have watched in despair for the last three years as Remainer MPs have tried to hijack democracy will regard Johnson as a hero.
Indeed, he is being cheered by Brexit sympathisers around the world (even though some of the more excitable commentators, who seem to think HM the Queen has now come out for Boris and Brexit, display their ignorance of the fact that in signing her assent to the prorogation the Queen did absolutely nothing out of the ordinary and indeed, constitutionally, could have done nothing else).
The danger of this belief that Boris Johnson is the second coming of Winston Churchill is that it may make it far harder for the public to realise if he turns instead into the second coming of Theresa May.
So where does Nigel Farage now fit into this tumultuous end game? He says rightly that if Brexit isn’t delivered on October 31 the Conservatives (and Labour) will haemorrhage votes to the Brexit party in the general election that everyone can see is looming. But if that election takes place after October 31, then if Britain has left the EU on a rotten Johnson deal it will be too late. The Conservative party may well be punished for it at the ballot box, maybe even destroyed; but the bad deal would have been done and Britain would still not be free.
Putting it like that, it seems scarcely credible that Johnson would put the party’s survival at such risk by another sell-out deal. So maybe all this is just too gloomy. Maybe Johnson has restricted his minimal negotiating demands to removing the backstop in order to keep Remainers relatively sweet, but actually intends to leave with no deal.
As ever, though, the problem is that we don’t know what his real intention is. Does he?