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7 December 2020

Is the UK heading for a no-deal Brexit?

If the British government’s objective in the negotiations is “sovereignty”, then no deal is likely.  

By Stephen Bush

Is the United Kingdom headed for a no-deal exit on 31 December? Michel Barnier has updated EU ambassadors with a downbeat view of how the talks are going. The two sides remain far apart on arbitration, the so-called level playing field, and over fisheries. 

This week is a crucial one because it is this week that the Internal Market and Taxation Bills, which both contain clauses that would allow the United Kingdom to unpick its commitments made in the withdrawal agreement, return to legislative action here. While those clauses remain in place, it is difficult to see how an accord could be reached.

Whether we reach a deal or not comes down to a question that can only be answered by the man himself: is Boris Johnson willing to get one? 

As longtime readers will know, I have for a long time thought we would leave without a deal, and that remains my view, for a simple reason: what is this government doing Brexit for

I don’t mean that in a “overturn the result, call the whole thing off” way. I mean that the usual way we assess a government policy and understand its strategy is through an understanding of its objective. We understood in the first phase of the Brexit talks that Theresa May wanted to end the free movement of people and to maintain the status quo on the Irish border while holding on to the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, a set of objectives that could only be resolved by keeping the UK as a whole within the customs and regulatory framework of the European Union. 

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We understood that when Boris Johnson came in, he chose to prioritise divergence for England, Scotland and Wales over the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom: which meant signing a deal that deepened the customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. 

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[see also: How a rushed Brexit timetable risks undermining MEPs]

What does the government want? Is it the liberty to pump money directly into chosen industries and sectors free from restraint? Is it absolute control over British waters? What’s the economic strategy that underpins what we’re doing?  Do we want to dismantle the regulatory alignment that has facilitated our cross-party objectives towards Northern Ireland and the Irish border since 1985? Do we want them to stay in place? What are we actually trying to get out of these talks? 

If you do not have a concrete objective, it is hard, perhaps impossible to reach a successful outcome in any negotiation, large or small. 

If the objective – as it appears to be – is “sovereignty”, then, well, the only way to get that is a no-deal Brexit. Sovereignty and regulatory freedom is the thing you give up when you sign trade deals – that’s why the first generation of Conservative Leavers were opponents not only of our EU membership but of the stalled TTIP deal with the United States. 

It’s far from clear if the generation of Leavers in charge of the government have as coherent a philosophy as that, but approaching these negotiations with only a vague aspiration will surely end in the same way as going into these negotiations with a coherent plan to maximise our regulatory autonomy: and that means a no-deal exit. 

[see also: Brexit emptied so many serious political minds of sense, on both sides of the issue. Now let it be]