There is scarcely a twist or turn in the Brexit story over the past 18 months I have not charted in my Brexit diagrams. The rationale is the same now as it was when I started: to work out what is really important for the next steps of Brexit, and what can safely be ignored because it is not central to the outcome. Sometimes that has resulted in diagrams with a jumble of arrows and boxes, where many different paths lead to the same outcome, and the likelihood of each is finely balanced. And then once in a while there comes a moment of rare clarity, where the clouds part and suddenly one central decision comes into focus.
So it was with the production of my latest diagram.
Make no mistake: the future of Brexit now boils down to a decision that is going to be needed from Boris Johnson by this time next week. 7 days.
The outline of how a Deal on future relations between the UK and the EU that would come into force on 1st January 2021 can look are by now largely known. The points of dispute – on fisheries, Level Playing Field and governance – are also clear, and the limited room for manoeuvre of the EU side (and, crucially, among the EU’s Member States) is also well understood. In terms of the timetable, Thursday 19 November is the deadline as that is hard to shift for the EU – go beyond that and you are into the realms of extra sittings of the European Parliament between Christmas and New Year – and extension and complexity just for more and more talking is not going to cut it. A few more days (or even weeks) will not solve this, only decisions will.
It is also important to note what is not or no longer so central. The willingness of the House of Lords to fight on the Internal Market Bill is now clear, but their deliberations will conclude only after 25 November – too late. The new tone and commitment to the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland from President Elect Biden might in time re-shape UK-US and UK-EU relations, but for now it is too early to really know. Were a Deal to be agreed, a resolution would be tabled in the Commons – but there will be no binding vote UK side on whether to approve a Deal or not – the Commons has deprived itself of this power.
If Johnson wants a Deal on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, it is now in his hands to make that decision.
If he goes for Deal he can expect some small gains for the UK fishing industry, but will have to stomach some constraints on Level Playing Field and governance that are at odds with the rhetoric of Brexiters. He can also expect half a sigh of relief from UK industry that will not have to face tariffs on imports and exports from 1st January. However we know that this route is not easy at a practical level – Johnson is going to want to be feted as the great victor, but will then immediately face a whole host of practical problems – not least that customs infrastructure is not ready. Politicians in Northern Ireland are also restless. Johnson will also have to face down critique from within his own party – it is not inconceivable there would even be the first rumblings of efforts to oust him as Tory leader.
No Deal looks superficially easier at first sight, for it necessitates no complicated appeasement of this camp or that, either within Number 10 or the wider Tory parliamentary party. Johnson can point the finger straight at the EU and accuse it of intransigence. “We wanted a Deal with our friends in Brussels,” you can imagine him saying. “But it wasn’t to be.” But then events could overtake Johnson rather quickly. The UK economy is already fragile thanks to Coronavirus – and that led some Brits to hoard goods from supermarkets. Will the population stay stoic and calm faced with a No Deal exit? Tariffs will be imposed by the EU on UK exports in a bunch of different sectors, and that comes on top of the already known border headaches due to the lack of customs preparation UK side. Johnson might overcome No Deal short term, but medium term his problems would mount – his days would be numbered.
All of this would be a headache even for the best Prime Minister, a difficult conundrum for the most able decision maker. But voices underlining that Johnson is neither continue to mount. Conservative commentator Simon Heffer describes a “crisis of statesmanship” in The New Statesman. Rafael Behr describes him as “congenitally indecisive” and that “the trick was to be the last person in the room with him before a decision had to be taken.” His ex-colleague Rory Stewart paints the most damning picture of all about his character in The Times Literary Supplement. As if to underline the point, he spent yesterday dealing with warfare within Number 10 over who would be his chief of staff rather than putting his mind to Brexit (or indeed Coronavirus for that matter).
What happens now with Brexit depends on a decision by one man in the next seven days.
(Note: when I say No Deal in this piece I mean there will be an absence of a Deal between the UK and the EU ready for 1st January. That state will not continue indefinitely – the chaos it will cause will force both sides back to the negotiation table at some stage. At the moment I cannot know when or how that will happen, and hence this point is not examined in this article or in my Brexit diagrams)