As one of my sarcastic Twitter followers put it, are these Brexit negotiations sponsored by Microsoft Windows Autoupdate as they’ve been stuck on 95% for so long? Deadlines come and go. Even the supposedly firm one, EU side, at the European Council video call last Thursday, was not respected. As one of the sharpest Brexit watchers there is – David Henig – put it “for the last couple of weeks there have been persistent rumours in London of a deal ‘next week’. Too many to be coincidental.”
What is going on here?
The relatively well discussed Johnson-centric take on what is happening runs roughly like this. Johnson, always indecisive (see Paul Waugh for more on this), faces a choice – go for a Deal now to avoid disruption, and UK business and Tory pragmatists will breathe a sigh of relief. However the ERG Brexit hardliners will make Johnson’s life hell if he agrees a Deal, and there will be disruption in January anyway, regardless of what he decides.
The opposite is to decide that the political costs of a Deal are too high, and to appease the ERG, and pin the blame for disruption after 1st January firmly on Brussels. We tried, Johnson could say, but the EU asked for too much, so we go it alone.
At some point, so the argument goes, Johnson will eventually decide – because in this game the UK is the small car that has to turn off in the game of chicken, and it is facing the EU that is a metaphorical oncoming train. And not only is the EU more powerful, but it is also better prepared for 1 January than the UK is.
But what if this decide-one-way-or-another way of thinking is actually missing what is going on? It actually implies Johnson has to take a decision and will, eventually, do so. Doing so means he has to face someone down – the ERG if he goes for Deal, businesses and pragmatists if he doesn’t.
Instead what if not deciding anything at all is actually the strategy?
Both sides will continue to talk (at the Barnier-Frost level), and enough agreement will be found on the technical issues to make sure neither side wants to officially end negotiations. But the clock will continue to tick, and with increasing urgency. And at some point the European Commission will be asked by the Member States to trigger the next stage of No Deal contingency – 3 states wanted this on Thursday, but it did not happen – but happen it will sooner or later if there is no real substantive progress on the main issues (fisheries, Level Playing Field, governance) in sight.
Johnson can get away with this absence of a decision, UK side, as long as he chooses. The House of Commons might dig around a bit about the extent to which Northern Ireland will suffer, and the CBI might make a bit of a fuss, but there is no political storm in Westminster about Brexit right now. Starmer did not even touch on the issue at the most recent PMQs, so terrified he is of dividing Labour once more on the issue on one hand, and letting the Tories fail on their own accord on the other. And there will be no binding vote on a Deal if one emerges in the Commons – and only 21 working days of Parliament’s time are needed for ratification anyway.
As Tanguy says, this approach is “breathtakingly cynical. Not wanting fallout with Ultras by agreeing anything, Johnson permits no deal, ensuing chaos subdues Ultras, and ‘rescue deal’ makes Johnson look heroic.”
Now anyone thinking straight about the actual practical implications of a Deal or not by 1st January will be shaking their heads – for any Deal struck now would be a better one for the UK than one struck under duress in January when the ports are blocked up, supermarkets are missing some products, and companies are in danger of going to the wall – and all in the middle of a pandemic.
But the counterargument is when has the economically correct thing to do, or indeed the most sensible route in terms of negotiation tactics, ever dominated what has happened on the UK side with Brexit until now?
The series of events where the EU has to trigger its No Deal contingency (with the Brits then accusing the EU side of pulling the plug, and Johnson framing himself as the decent one who valiantly failed), followed by the chaos of No Deal in January, only for Johnson to then step in as the saviour to get everything under control by then striking a Deal, sounds scarily plausible. We also know that this plays to one of Number 10’s supposedly strong traits according to the very well connected James Forsyth – an ability to stay calm under pressure (thanks Rebecca Hutchison for the help here).
Yes, this is all ridiculously high stakes and risky. A sensible Number 10 would not attempt this. A Number 10 that had the best interests of the people of the UK in mind would not attempt this. A Number 10 with any foresight would realise a Deal under duress in January would be a very bad deal indeed, and would not attempt this.
But I am still wondering: is the Brexit negotiation delay only due to indecision? Or is it actually now also by design?