Argument

Boris Johnson Doesn’t Want a No-Deal Brexit. He Wants to Win an Election.

The British prime minister’s tough talk is designed to provoke Remainers into blocking Brexit—and give him a villain to blame during an election campaign.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (center) greets members of the public on a walkabout with Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel (2nd from right) and members of West Midlands Police in Birmingham, England on July 26.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (center) greets members of the public on a walkabout with Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel (2nd from right) and members of West Midlands Police in Birmingham, England on July 26. GEOFF PUGH/AFP/Getty Images

When he was campaigning to become the leader of the Conservative Party and, by extension, Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson claimed that the chances of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a deal were “a million-to-one against.” Yet, since he entered Downing Street, all signs appear to indicate that Johnson’s government is actively trying to increase the odds of a no-deal Brexit.

On his first day in office last month, Johnson filled his cabinet with hard-line Brexiteers. The Home Office and the Foreign Office, two of what are regarded as the great offices of state, are led by Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, respectively, both of whom are Brexit absolutists. Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign, has been brought in as a senior advisor and assistant to the prime minister. Johnson has, thus far, refused to even meet EU leaders for discussions until they agree to completely scrap the contentious Irish backstop from Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. Given the EU’s firm position that such an insurance policy is needed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, if he maintains this position, a no-deal Brexit becomes the only possible outcome.

Although all signs suggest Johnson is leading the U.K. off the no-deal cliff, the likelihood is that he doesn’t really want to crash out of the EU. His commitment to leaving the EU on Oct. 31 with or without a deal, “come what may,” might appear to be an intractable red line, but in reality it should be seen as a deliberate challenge to his opponents in Parliament to stop him from leaving without a deal.

If Johnson was truly set on pushing through no-deal, he would have shown greater subtlety and gone about his plans more covertly so as to avoid alarming his opponents. Instead, he has set out to cause maximum panic, which has had the effect of spurring a cross-party coalition against no-deal into action: Within days of Johnson’s entry into Downing Street, it was reported that the recently resigned chancellor, Philip Hammond, held meetings with Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and other Tory rebels where they began mapping out a strategy to block no-deal in the autumn. This bipartisan group is so concerned by the signals coming out of No. 10 that it intends to meet throughout the summer to plan its strategy in detail to maximize its chances of succeeding. 

Johnson is well aware that the fallout from a no-deal Brexit would threaten his government as well as the long-term reputation of the Conservative Party. But he is unable to soften his rhetoric because it would provoke a furious backlash from absolutist Brexiteers within his own party and among the wider electorate. To keep his cabinet on his side and to dissuade Conservative voters (some 61 percent of whom voted to leave the EU in 2016) from defecting to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, Johnson needs to be seen as a committed no-dealer. 

This balancing act depends upon provoking hostile members of Parliament into blocking no-deal and forcing him to seek yet another extension to the Article 50 deadline so he doesn’t have to suffer the consequences of climbing down on his own accord. Johnson would then be able to spin the Brexit delay as an act of sabotage by a Remainer-dominated Parliament and use it as justification for a snap general election. Indeed, it has been reported that Johnson and Cummings have already been laying the groundwork for a “people versus politicians” general election, long before Parliament has even made a move.

Commentators have long speculated that Johnson would call fresh elections within months of entering Downing Street so he can boost his working majority, which as of now depends on the hard-line Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and is currently down to a single MP. By vocally committing to no-deal, Johnson is trying to consolidate the Leave vote ahead of a future election by signaling to potential Brexit Party voters that the Tories are the party best placed to secure a no-deal Brexit in a political landscape littered with Remainers.

This strategy appears to be working: Since Johnson entered Downing Street, a “Boris bounce” has seen support for the Brexit Party drop five points, down to 14 percent, while the Conservatives have risen six points up to 31 percent. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are neck and neck at 22 and 21 percent respectively, which points to a split in the Remain vote. This makes an early election ever more tempting for Johnson, because according to Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester, “under first past the post, a consolidated Leave vote will overcome a fragmented Remain vote often enough to deliver the Conservatives victory in many seats and thus a majority overall.”

In an electoral system that only rewards the party that comes first in any given seat, Johnson will stand a good chance of winning a parliamentary majority on a low vote share, just as the Labour Party’s Tony Blair did in 2005 when he won a 66-seat majority despite taking only 35.2 percent of the vote—a mere 2.8 percent more than the Conservatives. Even with a slender majority of some 30 seats, Johnson would have far more leeway to push his own revised Brexit deal through Parliament. The most straightforward way of doing this would be to alter the Irish backstop provision so that it only applies to Northern Ireland rather than the entire U.K., as the EU originally proposed in a draft withdrawal agreement in February 2018. 

This arrangement would suit both the EU and English Brexiteers, as it would maintain an open border on the island of Ireland while allowing Great Britain to strike its own trade deals, because it would be outside of the European customs union. However, Johnson is unable to pursue this route, because it would alienate the 10 DUP MPs who currently prop up his government. The Tories are currently just 10 seats short of a working majority, so even a modest improvement on their 2017 general election result would allow Johnson to cut the DUP loose and push through a withdrawal agreement with a Northern Ireland-only backstop. In trade terms, this would effectively move the border between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland into the Irish Sea and result in customs checks on goods traveling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. 

Although this would be anathema to the DUP, such a deal would appeal to both wings of the Conservative Party, which means that it could potentially pass on the back of Tory votes alone. As much as the Conservatives like to talk up their unionist credentials, which is something that Johnson tried to emphasize recently when he added “Minister for the Union” to his title, the fact is that Brexit is, at its core, a manifestation of English nationalism, and its proponents would have few qualms about abandoning Northern Ireland to Brussels if it enables them to achieve their dreams of a buccaneering, post-Brexit England powered by the winds of deregulation and free trade. As the writer Andrew McQuillan highlighted on Politics Home earlier this year: “everyone, apart from the DUP it seems, could see that when it came down to it for a swathe of English Brexiteers, leaving the EU would always take primacy over any small attachment to a geographically and politically distant part of the UK which deep down, they regard as an annoyance at best.”

Calling an election would be a dangerous gamble for Johnson, especially after the hubristic calamity of 2017, when Theresa May squandered the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority. But perhaps the call won’t be his to make: Labour will almost certainly put forth a no-confidence motion against the prime minister in the fall, and if just a handful of Tories make good on their threats to stop a no-deal Brexit by siding with the opposition, Johnson’s government will fall and a general election will likely follow soon after, unless either Johnson or the opposition can assemble a parliamentary majority during the 14-day window set out in the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act.

With the opposition divided, there is reason to suspect that Johnson is actively trying to engineer such a situation, because it would look like he was forced into an election against his own will by traitors within his own party. And should he then fail to expand the Conservatives’ majority, he would be well placed to shirk responsibility by blaming the election on his internal opponents.

However, recent reports suggest that Johnson could refuse to resign in the event of a successful no-confidence vote and wait out the following 14 days before setting an election date in early November that would ensure that Britain crashes out of the EU by default. Technically, this remains a possibility: A minimum of 25 business days must pass between the dissolution of Parliament and election day, but it is the incumbent prime minister who gets to choose the date of the poll. Although such an outcome cannot be ruled out, these plans look like yet another provocation designed to push Parliament into action.

It would be easier to win over Leave voters by spinning a “people versus the politicians” narrative that plays to their biases rather than convincing every other demographic to back the Conservatives at a time when there’s rioting in the streets.

It is highly implausible that Johnson would attempt to fight an election in the days after no-deal. Most mainstream experts believe that a no-deal crash out would be an economic disaster that could result in food shortages, and the government has tested plans to deploy 10,000 police officers to deal with any violent disorder that might erupt in a no-deal scenario. Even Cummings himself has previously said that “triggering [Article 50] quickly without plan and legal preps for no deal would be like putting a gun in mouth and kaboom.”

This shows that underneath the bravado, the Johnson camp isn’t nearly as relaxed about no-deal as it appears. Its rhetoric is designed to neutralize Farage ahead of a pre-Brexit election, because all logic suggests that it would be easier to win over Leave voters by spinning a “people versus the politicians” narrative that plays to their biases rather than convincing every other demographic to back the Conservatives at a time when there’s rioting in the streets.

The Brexiteers have repeatedly argued that Brussels needs to think that Britain is serious about leaving without a deal, as this is the only way to achieve a good agreement. Johnson recently repeated this mantra when he said that the EU needs to “look into our eyes and think, well, this time the Brits really do intend to come out on Oct. 31.” But the reality is that it’s Brits, not Brussels bureaucrats, whom Johnson wants to take his threats seriously.

He’s bluffing both sides of the Brexit divide at home in an attempt to consolidate the Leave vote and provoke his opponents into saving him from the near-certain catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit, which would threaten to destroy the Tories’ reputation for economic competence for a generation. Leaving the EU was never Johnson’s priority: It was seizing power. And now that he’s moved into Downing Street, Johnson will do everything he can to stay there.

Aleks Eror is a Belgrade-born journalist whose work has been published by the Guardian, the New Republic, Vice, Slate, the Telegraph, and others. Twitter: @slandr

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