Could the next Tory leader really pull off a “managed no-deal Brexit”?

Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid are both said to be advocating no-deal lite. It could win over Tory MPs, but it’s a non-starter in Brussels.

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When Jo Johnson resigned from the government last month, his departure was immediately chalked up as a victory for second referendum campaigners. “Given that the reality of Brexit has turned out to be so far from what was once promised,” he said, “the democratic thing to do is to give the public the final say.”

That coverage largely missed an altogether more notable, albeit qualified, endorsement – that of a no-deal Brexit. “For all its challenges and for all the real pain it would cause us as we adapt to new barriers to trade with our biggest market, we can ultimately survive these difficulties,” he said. “A ‘no deal’ outcome of this sort may well be better than the never ending purgatory the Prime Minister is offering the country.”

Johnson is not alone in his willingness to countenance the outcome that Downing Street believes most Tory MPs view as unthinkable. Both Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid, the two frontrunners to succeed Theresa May, have both been reported as pitching themselves as prime ministers for a “managed no-deal” scenario, a position also backed by Andrea Leadsom.

Are MPs buying what these ministers are selling? It depends, as ever, on the packaging and salesperson. Less important than the fact of leaving without a deal is the means of managing it. None of its advocates envision a cliff-edge. Leadsom, for instance, favours a one-off payment to the EU in return for measures that would avert the scenario popularly known as “crashing out” – namely a transition period, during which time the UK would negotiate a free-trade deal as a third country, and reciprocal arrangements on citizens’ rights. (Jacob Rees-Mogg has advocated a similar approach.) Another course would see the UK strike a number of individual mini-deals to avert chaos in individual sectors of the economy, such as aviation.

Once this is explained to MPs, allies of the Commons leader say, there is some buy-in. Add to the converts those who want a no-deal Brexit as an article of faith, and there are the makings of a leadership-election-winning coalition. One member of the government endorses Johnson’s argument and says a negotiated no-deal should be given “serious consideration”. While some Tories are unwilling to licence any Brexit that does not include a trade deal, a growing number see such a pitch as a credible or at least politically shrewd one.

Can it succeed? In the party, quite possibly. “I think people will be wary of another identikit corporate suit who backed May’s terrible deal,” says one veteran Eurosceptic, “but he’s more credible than Rudd or Javid.” Other backbenchers say the Foreign Secretary is playing a “very cute game”. Notwithstanding the support that exists for a managed no-deal among Tory MPs, that whiff of triangulation could hobble him.

Having backed Remain in 2016, Hunt publicly flirted with running on a second referendum platform in the Tory leadership election that followed, before resiling from that stance and claiming he would vote Leave in a new poll. These conversions have sown a reputation for political dilettantism and bred a degree of distrust. “What does he actually believe?” asks one PPS. Sources close to Hunt flatly deny he is pushing for a managed no-deal.

The same is true of Javid, who has undergone a similar journey. One wary backbencher Leaver sums it up thus: “The trust isn’t there. Would we trust two Remainers to do this? We’ve given one a chance.”

The more important question, however, is whether such a gambit would have any purchase where it actually matters: in Brussels. On that front, the signs are not good. MLex reports that the European Commission has rejected a UK appeal not to introduce new checks on goods and people entering EU ports from Britain in a no-deal scenario. Brussels has been similarly clear that the measures it will take to mitigate its impact will be minimal, time-limited and designed for the benefit of firms in the EU27 rather than the UK.

There is no straightforward way to avoid chaos in the way Tory leadership candidates anticipate. If they proceed in ousting May under this false pretence, than they could well find that there is no way to manage no-deal – or indeed Brexit – at all.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.