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1 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:03pm

The problem with theories that Boris Johnson is bluffing over a no-deal Brexit

By Stephen Bush

Sajid Javid will announce a further £1.1bn of borrowing to prepare for no deal, with another billion on top of that if necessary to further ramp up the government’s plans for leaving the EU without a deal.

How will the money be spent? £344m will go on border and customs operations (those 500 extra border guards), £434m for medicine supplies, £108m to support businesses and a £138m public information campaign.

Just one small problem: hiring 500 border guards, or investing in extra transport infrastructure isn’t like going down to the shops and buying a packet of biscuits. There’s a reason why Justine Greening opened more free schools and academies than Michael Gove, why Greg Clark presided over the United Kingdom’s first week free of coal-powered energy and Ed Miliband or Ed Davey did not: infrastructure projects and the hiring of staff take a fair bit of time.

Even the £138m advertising spend – which, given that the government has already borrowed an extra £6bn to prepare for no deal itself, is arguably the most important part, as most businesses’ no-deal preparation either consists of thinking that the stories about no deal are all scare stories, or that it will all be fine because Dominic Grieve will stop it – is going to take time to work its way through the system and in front of people’s eyes.

It’s very difficult to move the dial as far as no-deal preparation is concerned – or, indeed, across most of government policy – in less than 100 days, even moreso when parliament is not sitting and is actively hostile to a no-deal Brexit.

That reality is why many observers think that the government’s position is a bluff – whether to the EU27 or to parliament, to force an election in which Boris Johnson can run as the tribune of the people against a Remainer parliament in order to strike a different deal with his resulting majority. If freed from his reliance on the DUP, for instance, Johnson might opt for a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. That’s how the theory runs.

The problem with that is that as far as the EU27 is concerned, if no deal is a bluff, it’s a bluff designed to force them to produce something which does not exist – a way to continue the status quo on the Irish border without regulatory and customs alignment between Ireland and Northern Ireland. You can get someone to produce their car keys at gunpoint, but you can’t get them to produce a flying carpet.

And as far as parliament goes – well, it’s not clear at all that parliament can meaningfully act to block a no-deal Brexit. Don’t forget that parliament ultimately didn’t block no deal last time – Theresa May did.

The truth that anyone confidently asserting that Johnson is bluffing has to reckon with is that if you are the kind of person who worries about the amount of time it takes Whitehall to do anything, about procurement and about border infrastructure  – you probably aren’t the kind of person who is willing to flirt with a no-deal Brexit under any circumstance. 

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