Boris Johnson’s Plan to Get Brexit Done and ‘Hang the Consequences’

The United Kingdom is going back on the terms of its divorce with Europe, threatening any future trade deals and even the integrity of the U.K. itself.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a virtual press conference in London on Sept. 9. Stefan Rousseau-WPA Pool/Getty Images

Britain’s messy exit from the European Union came crashing back into the headlines this week with an apparent head-on assault by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the terms of the withdrawal agreement signed with Brussels earlier this year, an assault that could put in jeopardy any trade deal with Europe or the United States, and possibly even the integrity of the United Kingdom itself. 

New legislation introduced Wednesday in Parliament seeks to unilaterally overturn one of the key provisions of the bilateral agreement reached in January with Brussels, a mandatory customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. if no free trade deal is agreed between London and the EU at the end of this year. Even Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted that the proposed new legislation breaks international law, if only in a “specific and limited way,” drawing fierce criticism from senior Conservatives, including former Prime Minister Theresa May, as well as Brussels. The EU has given Britain until the end of the month to amend the newly introduced legislation. 

But Downing Street insiders say there’s method to Johnson’s apparent madness, and it’s driven by domestic, not international, politics. Striking an even harder line with Brussels now is less about wrangling concessions from the EU and more about “heading off a new revolt from Brexit ultras,” said one senior civil servant who sees Johnson on a daily basis.

For Johnson, the risks of playing fast and loose with Britain’s global reputation by breaching an international treaty are outweighed by “the need to head off the same kind of nightmare that May faced … a major revolt in the [Conservative] Party and the birth of a new UKIP,” the senior civil servant said.Downing Street insiders say there’s method to Johnson’s apparent madness, and it’s driven by domestic, not international, politics.

The UK Independence Party, later superseded by the Brexit Party, was a single-issue political grouping that campaigned for a complete break from the EU, spearheading the 2016 campaign to leave Europe, and whose popularity from 2016 to 2019 was a major drain on Conservative support. Johnson was able to win a landslide electoral victory last December by taking a far harder line on Brexit than May did, both crushing support for the Brexit Party and winning over former Labour voters in largely working-class areas who supported his tough stance against Brussels. 

Nine months on, the prime minister’s political calculus remains the same: Cave to Brussels, even over things already agreed to, and Johnson’s political base caves with it. Hence this week’s reiteration by David Frost, the U.K.’s point man on talks with Europe, that Britain would be fine leaving the EU with no free trade deal and falling back on less-favorable trade terms under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. 

The problem is that the economic consequences of crashing out with no trade deal—including the suspension of Britain’s ability to ply financial services in European markets, long delays at ports, higher prices for imports, and less competitive exports—could also prove politically catastrophic. That’s the fundamental dilemma that Johnson faces just five weeks before a self-imposed deadline to thrash out the basics of a trade deal with the rest of the EU. 

“Boris’ philosophy has always been having his cake and eating it—and he’s always managed to get away with saying one thing and doing another,” said a source close to the Johnson family. “The problem is that the EU is very legalistic. There comes a point when you can’t get away with fudges any more. So it’s a trade deal and ‘vassalage’ to EU law, or economic disaster and the breakup of the [U.K.]. That’s Boris’ choice. Or maybe it’s already out of his hands. They’ve wasted too much time.”

When the U.K. finally pushed through Brexit and set the clock ticking on its divorce from the EU, Johnson’s government insisted on negotiating a sweeping new relationship covering everything from fisheries to trade to state aid by this autumn. But so far, stymied by unbridgeable gaps between what Europe demands and what Britain can accept, the two sides have made little progress. 

The EU’s top negotiator, Michel Barnier, who is in London this week in yet another effort to hash out some common ground, has already complained of a “wasted summer.” On the U.K. side, Frost and his team have complained that the EU has refused to proceed with negotiations until two key areas of contention—fisheries access and rules on state aid—are resolved. 

Johnson and his team seem to be betting that the threat of disruption to EU businesses from a no-deal Brexit will be enough to focus minds in Brussels and force concessions. 

“It’s a game of political chicken,” said the Downing Street insider, who noted that in past negotiations, the EU has shown more flexibility, such as allowing the Swiss some leeway on banking regulations, while still securing a trade deal. “So [Frost] isn’t making quite the kind of kamikaze dive that the press have been making out. But the timing is getting very tight.”

More than four years after Britain voted to leave the EU, and nine months after divorce proceedings began in earnest, the dance remains what it ever was. Johnson needs to secure sufficient concessions to claim he hasn’t betrayed Brexit, even as Europe has remained utterly steadfast in its demands. Before his meeting with Barnier this week, Frost said the EU needs to show “more realism … about our status as an independent country.” Yet from the start, Brussels has repeatedly made clear that any trade deal will be contingent on Britain remaining in close alignment with EU regulations on labor, food safety, state aid, and fisheries.Johnson and his team seem to be betting that the threat of disruption to EU businesses will be enough to force concessions. 

The original withdrawal agreement Johnson signed would establish a de facto customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain in the event of no free trade deal—key to assuaging European fears that Brexit could jeopardize a quarter-century-old landmark peace agreement. From London’s perspective, leaving Northern Ireland in Europe’s economic sphere not only partially betrayed the promise of Brexit but also threatened to drive Northern Ireland closer to unification with the Republic of Ireland itself. That’s not the only threat to British unity unleashed by Brexit. Scotland is now pushing for a second referendum on independence from the U.K., after the first one in 2014 narrowly failed. Now, given the prospect of being locked out of Europe as part of Brexit Britain, Scottish nationalists seem to have the upper hand.

The whole point of this week’s legislation was to get around the imposition of a de facto border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. But it predictably outraged Brussels—and Dublin. Irish leader Micheal Martin told the Financial Times this week that there were now “justifiable doubts” as to whether the U.K. wanted to conclude trade negotiations at all. “Our colleagues in Europe, in particular those conducting the negotiations, are now wondering whether the will is there or not to arrive at a conclusion and get an agreement,” Martin said. 

Johnson’s planned abrogation of the withdrawal agreement has also gone down poorly in Washington. Lawmakers in Congress have warned that any British move that imperils the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ending decades of violent conflict in Ireland will nix any prospect of a trade deal with the United States, a sentiment echoed by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

But in Downing Street, the current mood is “all about getting Brexit done, and hang the consequences,” according to the senior civil servant. Johnson’s senior advisors were all recruited from the Vote Leave campaign, which drove through Brexit during the 2016 referendum. 

“Boris is surrounded with believers who think that [Britain] can go it alone,” the Downing Street insider said. As time runs out for a trade deal with Europe (or the United States) and threats of the dissolution of the United Kingdom mount, the only question is just how alone Britain will go it.

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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