It was once Leavers, not Remainers, who insisted that a no-deal Brexit was unthinkable. David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, declared in February 2016 that German car manufacturers would be “knocking down Chancellor Merkel’s door demanding that there be no barriers to German access to the British market”. Liam Fox, the former international trade secretary, predicted that a new British trade deal with the European Union would be “one of the easiest in human history”. Boris Johnson himself, while foreign secretary, declared in July 2017: “There is no plan for no deal because we are going to get a great deal.”
The Brexiteers have again collided with reality. A deal was always achievable but not at any price. The Leave campaign’s promise to avoid the creation of a hard Irish border, for instance, created unavoidable restrictions. The predictable result was Theresa May’s unloved deal, which MPs rejected three times. Having encouraged the myth that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, the former prime minister was humiliated when she refused to accept her own logic.
Mr Johnson, who voted for Mrs May’s deal on the final occasion, insists that he will not endure the same fate. He argues, first, that only a sincere willingness to leave with no deal will encourage the EU to make concessions and, second, that the UK must leave with or without an agreement on 31 October.
There is no evidence that the first half of this strategy has succeeded. Angela Merkel’s declaration on 21 August that the UK should devise a solution to the Irish border problem within “the next 30 days” was merely a restatement of the EU’s long-standing position: it will consider alternatives to “the backstop” once Britain has the decency to offer them.
On 2 September, a leaked government paper confirmed that Britain has failed to do so. Indeed, Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s senior adviser, reportedly described the negotiations as a “sham” in internal strategy meetings.
Faced with the reality that he will struggle to achieve a superior agreement to that offered by Mrs May, Mr Johnson sought to intimidate MPs into accepting a no-deal Brexit. He first announced the suspension of parliament for five weeks from 14 September, an act unprecedented in its length and purpose. He then withdrew the Conservative whip from 21 Tory MPs, including two former chancellors, after they rightly voted to take control of parliamentary business.
It is with good reason that MPs have sought to obstruct a no-deal Brexit. Leaving the EU with no agreement would represent the greatest failure of British statecraft since the Second World War. A country once renowned for its stability and pragmatism would risk shortages of food, fuel and medicine, and months of disruption at its ports (Michael Gove, the minister responsible for no-deal planning, has blocked the release of a new document on the government’s preparations). The 1998 Good Friday Agreement – a triumph of Anglo-Irish diplomacy – would be imperilled. The British economy, according to the government’s own analysis, would be 9 per cent smaller after 15 years.
For some, the appeal of no deal is that it would “settle” the Europe question after more than three years of negotiations, but it would do nothing of the sort. Far from concluding negotiations, the UK would be forced to resume them from a position of maximum weakness. Matters such as the rights of EU citizens and the Irish border problem would still need to be resolved in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination. The UK would be free to sign trade deals with other countries but they, not an enfeebled Britain, would dictate the terms.
No deal is not better than a bad deal – it is the worst of all possible outcomes. With each day it becomes clearer that Britain already enjoys the best deal: full membership of the single market and the customs union with a suite of opt-outs. Those MPs who voted against Mrs May’s deal without offering workable alternatives bear some responsibility. Their first duty, however, is to halt Mr Johnson’s destructive advance towards no deal, at any cost.
This article appears in the 04 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war