Boris Johnson won’t be able to escape responsibility for a crash-out Brexit

This article is more than 1 month old
Andrew Rawnsley
The prime minister has neither mandate nor public support for dragging Britain into the abyss
Boris Johnson, wearing a hard hat and a high-vis jacket, makes a face.
‘The hope is that Mr Johnson will grasp just how much a catastrophe Brexit could cost him personally’: the prime minister in Blyth, Northumberland, on 11 December 2020. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA
‘The hope is that Mr Johnson will grasp just how much a catastrophe Brexit could cost him personally’: the prime minister in Blyth, Northumberland, on 11 December 2020. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Last modified on Sun 13 Dec 2020 06.31 EST

Boris Johnson has a decision to make and it may well be the most consequential choice of his premiership. He can’t evade ownership of this decision because he has the power to go either way. He can’t afterwards say that he was forced into it or it was someone else’s fault. This is one responsibility there’s no escaping from.

It is within his grasp to prevent the hydra-headed horrors of a no-deal Brexit by reaching a last-minute agreement with the EU. There’s a deal to be struck if he still genuinely wants one. The cabinet will accept it and it will be passed by parliament. This will be true even if he makes compromises that provoke a revolt by the Brexit fundamentalists. I say that because, even if there were to be a Tory rebellion substantial enough to threaten the government’s majority, Keir Starmer will not want to be blamed for sabotaging any agreement. Even a bare-bones deal will be preferable to none at all and Labour will ensure it gets through.

The prime minister is also free to pull the plug on the talks and tell Britain to adopt the brace position. The cabinet won’t restrain him. Some of them are highly fearful of what a crash-out Brexit will do to the country and their party. Those of them who best understand the dire consequences of a no-deal Brexit – think Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak – are most alarmed. But the nodding dogs in the cabinet will not put the brakes on the prime minister. The decision is entirely his to make.

A deal is in the interests of both sides. This is why, despite the gloomy noises coming out of both London and Brussels, some of the smart money is still betting on an agreement. The hope is that Mr Johnson will grasp just how much a catastrophe Brexit could cost him personally.

The government’s own “reasonable worst-case scenario” planning warns of massive queues to ports and huge delays at them; shortages of food, drugs and petrol; price hikes on many essential goods; panic buying at supermarkets; violent clashes between British and EU fishing fleets; disruption to critical services; the compromising of law enforcement and counter-terrorism; and possible civil disorder. You would not want to be a Welsh farmer facing unsurvivable tariffs on lamb exports. You would not want to be someone with a medical condition that requires imported drugs. The government will probably manage to fly in Covid vaccines even if it takes the entire RAF to do it, but its own no-deal contingency planning raises the spectre of delivery problems with life-critical medicines. You would not want to be a manufacturer faced with sudden new tariffs on your exports and broken supply chains. You would not want to be one of the 300,000 people forecast to lose their jobs if a calamity Brexit is inflicted on an economy already ravaged by the coronavirus. And you would not want to be the prime minister who, having made such a shambles of responding to the pandemic, now has to explain why farmers are being ruined, vital medicines are running short and factories are grinding to a halt because they can’t get components across blocked borders. You would not want to be the prime minister who has to explain why he consciously chose to unleash so much human misery on his people.

For sure, Mr Johnson will have a plan to try to shift blame away from himself and on to the EU. On some aspects of the talks, you can make a case that the EU has been making “unreasonable” demands. To which one has to say: why didn’t he anticipate this? Trade negotiations always involve hard bargaining even when conducted between the best of friends, and Britain was never going to be regarded as a completely reliable and trustworthy partner once it had left the EU and especially not with Mr Johnson as prime minister. His threats to dishonour past promises, and even when that would involve breaching international law, has made European leaders the more determined to nail down firm rules about Britain’s future behaviour.

There has always been a cognitive dislocation in Brexiter thinking about this. One side of the Brexiter brain regards the EU as a fiendishly cunning organisation that has spent 50 years scheming to do down Blighty. The other side of the Brexiter brain somehow convinced itself that this same EU would sweetly grant Britain privileged access to its single market without securing guarantees that Britain would not then seek to undermine it.

The world’s most prosperous trading bloc has six times the population of the UK. The EU has a lot to lose if there’s no agreement, but it has never had as much to fear from failure as we have.

In that event, we can expect Tory fingers to point furiously at the French and accuse them of being particularly beastly to Britain. Dispassionate observers agree that Emmanuel Macron is being extremely difficult and that the path to an agreement would be smoother were Angela Merkel the sole decider on the EU side. To which one can only say again: quelle surprise. Mr Macron faces a presidential election in less than 18 months and has a big incentive to demonstrate to his domestic audience that he is fighting hard for France. Mr Johnson, of all people, should be able to appreciate the roles that grandstanding, cynicism and self-interest play in the behaviour of leaders.

The political risks of not doing a deal are as asymmetric as the economic ones, because the prime minister has much more to lose than any of his European counterparts. Britain has never given him a mandate for a crash-out Brexit. The Brexiters themselves swore that such a catastrophe could never happen. That was their solemn pledge during both the referendum and at the general election last year. The latest polling suggests that only a small minority of voters – just one in six – supports a no-deal outcome. If he marches Britain over the cliff edge, Mr Johnson will be cheered on by elements of the rightwing media and the Brexitremists in his own party, but it will be in defiance of the great majority of the public, including millions who voted to leave.

He might get a short-term bounce by rattling his rusty sabre across the Channel, as British prime ministers often have when they claim to be “standing up” to Europe. My hunch, which is shared by those Tories who are capable of seeing further than this week, is that voters will quickly weary and then grow furious hearing the prime minister try to shift the blame for empty shelves in supermarkets, travel chaos and destroyed businesses. One senior Tory remarks: “When a no deal starts to impact on people’s lives, it won’t be Macron they will blame, it will be Boris.”

Remainers, who always said that Brexit was sold with a fraudulent prospectus, will at least have the consolation of being able to say: we told you so. Many of those who were persuaded to vote Leave will be entitled to feel duped. Again and again, Brexiters promised the nation that there was nothing to fear and everything to gain from their enterprise. Britain would “hold all the cards”, claimed Michael Gove. A free trade agreement with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”, Liam Fox assured everyone. Those of us who were always sceptical about that were denounced by Mr Johnson as “doomsters and gloomsters”.

At the election a year ago, he swore to voters that he could “absolutely guarantee that we’ll get a deal”. Failure to deliver will be a starkly personal defeat. He is the one who claimed that the chances of not getting an agreement were “vanishingly small”. He is the one who asserted: “There is no plan for no deal, because we are going to get a great deal.”

And he is the one who said a no-deal Brexit “would be a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible”.

As one former Conservative cabinet minister puts it: “Those promises are hung around his neck. He can paint no deal as defiance, but he can’t present it as a win.”

Boris Johnson has a choice to make. He can strive to secure the thin deal available. That will steadily make Britain poorer than it would have been, but at least it avoids the calamity of a crash-out. Or he can whistle Rule Britannia as he drags his country into the abyss while trying to explain why he has inflicted a disaster on Britain that he swore could never happen. Whichever decision he makes, he will own it. All of it.

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

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