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27 February 2020

Boris Johnson’s Brexit threat has a Theresa May-shaped problem

The Prime Minister’s pledge to walk away from talks is hamstrung by decisions made by his predecessor.

By Stephen Bush

The UK will walk away from the Brexit trade talks in June if it doesn’t get its way, the government has announced, stating that it would instead throw all its energies into preparing for a no-deal exit on 31 December.

The theory is sound – you get the best results in any negotiation if you are willing and able to walk away from a deal. That’s why at the start of any negotiation, whether as an individual, a trades union, a company, nation-state, or a bloc, you should always know what your Batna (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) is.

The problem is that those words “and able” are very important too. Preparing for no deal is a lot like preparing for life after Brexit as a genuine third country, outside the European customs union and the single market – it requires new and bigger infrastructure for customs checks. If you don’t have that infrastructure you don’t, in practice, have a best alternative to a negotiated agreement: you have stymied yourself from the get-go.

You can’t credibly meet that infrastructure need between today and 31 December – and it’s even harder to do so between 30 June and 31 December. This is the problem that successive British governments have had since Theresa May opted to trigger Article 50 before having made proper plans for life as a third country.  May made matters worse because throughout her premiership, while her government claimed rhetorically that “no deal was better than a bad deal”, it made few tangible plans for life after no deal – indeed, it made few tangible plans for any form of Brexit that took the UK out of the customs union.

As a result, the government would ideally agree to an implementation period after 31 December – so that it can make up for lost time as far as infrastructure goes. That is another British ask that makes UK diplomats’ lives harder and EU ones easier.

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That inheritance isn’t Boris Johnson’s fault but it is, nonetheless, the inheritance that any credible British negotiating position has to grapple with. One problem going into these negotiations is that, on the European side, they, too, know that there hasn’t been sufficient commitment to building infrastructure on the British end to “prepare for no deal”: that informs both their judgement of who will blink first and their judgement about who will come back to the table fastest after a no-deal exit on 31 December. And no amount of posturing, unless it is accompanied by brick-and-mortar commitment on the infrastructure side, is going to change that political reality.