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10 December 2020

Why no deal remains the most likely outcome of the Brexit talks

The most reasonable assumption is that Boris Johnson isn’t bluffing  

By Stephen Bush

Talks between the European Commission and the British government ended without agreement last night, with both sides announcing that they will reach a decision about the future of the trade talks on Sunday (13 December). 

This morning, the European Commission has published its proposed contingency plans for a no-deal exit, to ensure basic EU-UK connectivity by air and road and access to one another’s waters continues – provided that the United Kingdom agrees to maintain its existing level playing field commitments during the period. 

Are we heading for no deal? It is, frankly, unclear what is likely to change by Sunday. The question for the Conservative government is this: do you want to face tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade with the EU on 1 January in order to have the freedom to diverge on regulations and standards – a course you have repeatedly promised not to take, and something on which it is far from clear you could secure political support from your 2019 electoral coalition to do? Or do you want to sign up to a deal that would mean that if you did decide to diverge on regulations and standards, you would face tariff and non-tariff barriers at some unspecified future date, when the economy isn’t still struggling with the cost of lockdown and the pandemic? 

The only reason not to have given in to the EU on maintaining the level playing field a long time ago is if you sincerely believe that the threat of no deal will cause all 27 of the EU’s member states to give in to your demands, or if you are sufficiently ideologically committed to maintaining theoretical regulatory autonomy that you regard the immediate economic hit of a no-deal Brexit as a price worth paying.

[see also: Despite the chaos created by the Conservatives, Labour keeps losing. But Starmer wants to win]

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The former position misreads the motivations and political incentives of a number of EU member states, while the latter is a perfectly coherent ideological position: but both end in no deal.

Of course, it’s possible that Boris Johnson is trying to use all this last-minute theatre so that he can portray him making a big concession at the last as some kind of victory, as he did in 2019 when he agreed to put a border in the Irish Sea. It’s possible, too, that our PM is simply out of his depth and will therefore ultimately give in at the crucial moment. 

But I think it’s more likely that his essential “you can’t tell me what to do” attitude to politics and life, combined with the fact that supporting Brexit is the one cause he has taken genuine risks to sustain, means that it isn’t a bluff and that a no-deal exit remains the most likely outcome. 

[see also: No EU trade deal can undo the harm Brexit has inflicted on the UK]