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Boris Johnson’s Make-Believe Brexit Negotiations
He hasn’t just been rejected by Parliament—the British prime minister doesn’t even have a full team talking to Brussels anymore.
LONDON—Boris Johnson’s brief premiership—and his vows to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union by Oct. 31 “do or die”—both suffered a near-fatal hammering Wednesday after the House of Commons approved a bill forcing the U.K. government to seek a delay in Brexit if no new deal was struck with Brussels before the Halloween deadline.
Even more perilous for Johnson, he doesn’t seem to be putting forth any new negotiating position on how to get to Brexit, even if he could get Parliament to agree.
Johnson has long promised that a more vigorous negotiating position than that of his predecessor, Theresa May, would push the EU into offering last-minute concessions on the terms of Britain’s scheduled exit from the union. But according to a senior official source in the U.K. Foreign Office, under Johnson’s administration the U.K.’s Brexit negotiating team has in reality been “completely hollowed out” with “key people reassigned.” Despite Johnson’s promises of new proposals to solve the nearly intractable problem of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, in the run-up to a crunch EU summit on Oct. 17, the Johnson team has “nothing remotely new on the table,” the official told Foreign Policy.
That failure will mean that if the new law—currently being debated in the House of Lords—is finally passed, a delay in Brexit is all but inevitable.
While negotiations on May’s withdrawal agreement were going at full tilt in late 2018, the Foreign Office negotiating team numbered over 90 people. With the replacement of May’s top negotiator, Olly Robbins, with David Frost in June, that team has been largely disbanded, with most negotiators transferred to other departments. Frost still holds twice-weekly meetings in Brussels—but “our team is basically being sent [to Brussels] to pretend to negotiate, run down the clock,” says the Foreign Office official. “It’s pretty embarrassing. These are serious people being asked to [participate in] a charade.”
Proof that Johnson’s stated belief in the possibility of a new deal with the EU is a “sham,” said the source, is the absurdly tight deadline that such an outcome would require. May’s withdrawal agreement—which was humiliatingly rejected by historic majorities in Parliament last winter—took nearly three years to thrash out. Johnson’s timetable would have required the details of a new deal to be drafted and for Parliament to pass it between the summit on Oct. 17 and the scheduled Brexit deadline of Oct. 31.
Few observers—beyond a clique of hard-line pro-Brexit supporters in the Conservative Party—seriously expected Johnson to actually achieve a breakthrough in talks with Brussels. Nonetheless, amid furiously acrimonious exchanges in a packed House of Commons, Johnson accused the opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn of undermining the government’s negotiation position and voting for a “white flag of surrender” to the EU. In one important sense, Johnson was right. Wednesday’s Commons vote mandating an extension of the Brexit deadline in the event of an impasse effectively removed any incentive for the EU to offer any concessions at all.
But according to sources close to Johnson, the government’s insistence on being ready to take Britain out of the EU with no deal—despite the widely predicted economic chaos that would follow—has been a bluff from the beginning. Johnson inherited a parliamentary majority of one member—which shrank to zero after the defection of Member of Parliament Phillip Lee, who crossed the floor of the House to join the Liberal Democrats as Johnson spoke to Parliament on Tuesday.
“There was never any way Boris could have done anything with this House,” said a close associate who has known Johnson for 20 years.
On coming to power in July, Johnson’s choice was either to press on “like Theresa [May] trying to get everyone on board,” said the source, or “toss up the whole thing” by calling a new election. But, crucially, Johnson’s only chance for victory in a general election is to squash the challenge from the single-issue Brexit Party, headed by the veteran anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage—whose party came out on top in recent European Parliament elections, beating the Conservatives into a humiliating fifth place. “The only game now is out-Faraging Farage,” the source said.
By that logic, Johnson’s entire gambit has been to provoke his opponents in Parliament into forcing him to delay a no-deal Brexit—allowing him to claim that his attempt to implement the 2016 Brexit referendum has been thwarted by an undemocratic, pro-EU Parliament. More, he wants to blame his opponents for forcing him to call the general election that he actually wants. And in that sense, Johnson has succeeded on both counts.
Johnson’s defeat at the hands of pro-EU Conservative MPs who rebelled against their party and voted to mandate a delay in Brexit may have been entirely expected. But that’s not to say everything is going according to plan. For a start, the Tory Party rebellion was far bigger than expected, with many senior former cabinet ministers and party grandees among the 21 MPs who voted against the government. The rebels—who included Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames; Ken Clarke, currently the longest-serving MP in the Commons; and Rory Stewart, a recent contender for party leader—were also summarily expelled from the parliamentary party, causing a backlash among their colleagues. At a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs on Wednesday evening, many members cheered Edward Leigh and Damian Green for speaking up for the 21 rebels, and they booed Daniel Kawczynski for attacking them. That reaction opens the prospect of a major anti-Johnson backlash once his much-promised new deal with the EU fails to materialize.
Even the usually pro-Conservative Times newspaper expressed dismay at Johnson’s ruthless bluffing. “Nothing is as it seems. Boris Johnson wanted and intended to lose his historic vote,” wrote Jenni Russell. “Johnson and his chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, deliberately planned and engineered last night’s defeat, goading the Commons into opposing him; he was lying to his party, parliament and the country when he claimed that he was being pushed into calling an election.”
But where Johnson’s confrontational strategy has really broken down is over control of the timing of an election—which thanks to the Commons rebellion is no longer in the prime minister’s hands but in Corbyn’s.
Before the parliamentary dramas of the last two days, Johnson’s allies were widely briefing that the Conservatives’ plan was to go hell for leather for Brexit, get over the Oct. 31 deadline “by any means necessary” (in the words of key Johnson advisor and Malcolm X fan Dominic Cummings) and call a general election the day after. The logic was to reap the rewards of delivering Brexit before any of the practical economic fallout of a no-deal Brexit blew up in the government’s face.
Unfortunately for Johnson, with MPs rather than the government now in charge of the parliamentary timetable, that plan looks unworkable. Corbyn confirmed Wednesday that the Labour Party will first fully pass the legislation ruling out a no-deal Brexit before backing a fresh election. Other senior Labour Party figures, including Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer—a key leadership contender to succeed Corbyn— have said that the party should wait until Johnson has actually asked and received an extension from the EU. But either way, the Labour party is “not going to dance to [Johnson’s] tune,” Starmer insisted.
The Brexit endgame, then, has become a tug of war over what election date will be maximally damaging for the Conservatives and least damaging for Labour. Both sides have now called for an election—the only question remains when. A two-thirds majority of Parliament is required to call an early election, meaning that both governments would have to persuade the opposition to agree. On Wednesday night, a motion put forward by Johnson calling for an election on Oct. 14—days before the crucial EU summit on Oct. 17—was defeated. Ideally, Labour would love to delay the public vote until after Johnson is humiliatingly forced to ask for a Brexit deal—which would be a boost for the Brexit Party and scupper Conservative chances of power.
But Johnson himself has vowed that he will never surrender to Brussels—raising fears among many Labour members that he will agree to a pre-Brexit election, suspend Parliament for the official 25-day campaigning period, and then break his word and delay a vote until beyond the Halloween Brexit deadline regardless of Parliament’s will.
Outside the Palace of Westminster, meanwhile, European politicians looked on in puzzlement. EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier canceled a planned engagement in Belfast to speak on the future of Europe because Britain has “finally arrived at a moment of truth.” Labour’s Thelma Walker had earlier said that Brexit has made Britain “the laughingstock of the world. … Our country deserves much better.”
But with a mandatory delay of Brexit fast making its way into law, the only way for Britain to leave the EU now will be for Johnson to persuade a majority of voters to back his radical, no-deal version of Brexit in a general election. And the polls have been showing that public opinion is going in the opposite direction.