Leader: An unserious country

A no-deal Brexit would force the UK to resume negotiations from a position of maximum weakness. 

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In July 2018 at a private dinner at the Institute of Directors, Boris Johnson invited his audience to imagine “Trump doing Brexit”. He elaborated: “He’d go in bloody hard. There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere.” Mr Johnson has taken something of a Trumpian approach to the Brexit process: he has unlawfully prorogued parliament, misled the media and removed the whip from 21 Conservative MPs. But he has got nowhere. He has neither achieved a new Brexit deal, nor has he guaranteed that Britain will leave the EU by 31 October, “do or die”.

The Prime Minister’s failure in Brussels was to be expected. The EU had long accepted the UK’s assurance that it would permit no hard border on the island of Ireland. When Mr Johnson announced that this was, in fact, not the case, failure became inevitable. The notion that the EU would betray Ireland – a trusted and loyal member state – was always fantastical. As Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former ambassador to the EU, has observed: “This may be the first Anglo-Irish negotiation in history where the greater leverage is not on London’s side of the table.”

The Irish border problem – the defining obstacle faced by Brexiteers – was carelessly neglected during the EU referendum campaign in 2016, although we warned that Brexit would “threaten the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland by encouraging the return of border controls”. Others glibly suggested that the Irish border would be “completely unchanged” (Mr Johnson) or accused critics of “scaremongering” (Theresa Villiers, then Northern Ireland secretary). Such was Brexiteers’ exhilaration at the notion of a supercharged “Anglosphere” that they disregarded the future of an already existing union, as Robert Saunders writes in this week’s cover story beginning on page 22.

Downing Street’s priority is no longer to achieve a withdrawal deal (if it ever was) but to avoid the blame for no deal. It has shamelessly cast judges and MPs as traitors and traditional allies as belligerents. Rather than seeking a mandate for a new Brexit agreement at a general election, the Conservatives are poised to campaign for no deal.

An outcome that was once deemed unthinkable is presented as inevitable. As recently as 2013, Mr Johnson declared that he was “in favour of the single market”. Even after he embraced Brexit for self-interested reasons, he insisted in July 2017: “There is no plan for no deal because we are going to get a great deal.”

It is with good reason that MPs have sought to obstruct no deal. A country that was once renowned for its pragmatism and stability would as a consequence of no deal risk shortages of food, fuel and medicine and months of disruption at its ports. The UK economy, according to the government’s own analysis, would be 9 per cent smaller after 15 years.

For some, the allure of no deal is that it would “settle” the Europe question after more than three years of tortuous negotiations, but it would do nothing of the sort. Far from concluding negotiations, Britain would be forced to resume them from a position of maximum weakness.

Matters such as the rights of EU citizens and the Irish border 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 it would not dictate the terms.

Theresa May repeatedly intoned that no deal is better than a bad deal. It is not: it is the worst of all possible outcomes. Yet aided by a weak and divided opposition, obsequious Conservative MPs, a largely sycophantic right-wing press and a deferential BBC, Mr Johnson is advancing towards his goal: Brexit at any cost.

For privileged Leavers, no deal is “nothing to be frightened of” (as the egregious Jacob Rees-Mogg put it, unintentionally paraphrasing Adam Ant). Indeed, they positively relish such “creative destruction” and economic anarchy in the UK. But there will be a reckoning.

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain