A hard Brexit looms

Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems to have the momentum to get his Brexit deal over the line – and to follow up with a general election triumph while the electorate are still sighing with relief.

On Saturday afternoon, as the news emerged of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s failure to railroad his new Brexit deal through the House of Commons sight unseen, a huge cheer went up from the crowds thronging Parliament Square.

One million marchers had converged on London from all corners of the country to demand a second referendum before the enactment of a Brexit radically at odds with the original prospectus offered by the Leave campaign in 2016. So, Parliament’s adoption of the so-called Letwin amendment (“this House has considered the matter but withholds approval unless and until implementing legislation is passed”) felt to Remainers like an important victory. And, as a stay of execution, it was. But it may also have been their last hurrah.

October exit still the target

Of course, Johnson’s attempt to create a sense of unstoppable momentum towards a 31 October departure from the European Union has suffered a blow. And he has been forced to do what he vowed he never would: seek a further extension of the negotiating period until 31 January, disclaimers and omitted signatures notwithstanding.

Saturday’s Parliamentary defeat also underlines how he has complicated the already difficult Parliamentary arithmetic by throwing his erstwhile Northern Irish Unionist allies under the bus by agreeing to a border in the Irish Sea – which he assured the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) only a year ago that “no British Conservative government could or should sign up to”. (The DUP may need to have a word with the Syrian Kurds, with “Put not thy trust in princes” as their theme.)

“Global Britain” will become a low-cost, low-regulation economy – a welcoming home for footloose international finance.

But voting for a delay is one thing; voting down the new deal, or even attaching a “confirmatory referendum” requirement to it, is quite another. Letwin himself has said he will be perfectly ready to vote for the deal once the enabling legislation has been put in place (and the last risk of a petulant or accidental crash-out at the end of the month has been averted). Now that the government has sought the extension, other Tory rebels may well return to the fold. Speaker John Bercow’s disallowance of an immediate re-run of Saturday’s vote will not have surprised the government, which continues to project confidence that it can get the show back on the road in the course of the week, with a 31 October exit still in its sights.

Welcoming home for footloose international finance

Two factors, in particular, justify such bullishness. Firstly, the predominantly Brexiteer British press greeted Saturday’s events by ratcheting up the level of hysteria yet again. “House of Fools” was the Sunday Mail’s headline. “Boris Johnson fights ‘Brexit wreckers’ with three defiant letters to EU” offered the Sunday Times. The national mood can be said, without exaggeration, to be approaching some sort of collective nervous meltdown. “Just get it over with” is the pervasive mantra: and, though “It’s like saying ‘I want to get childbirth done so I can get back to lots of sleep and reading lots of novels’”, the unhappy truth – that doing Boris’s deal will be only the prelude to years more Brexit agony – is just not cutting through.

The second reason for government confidence is that the new deal has squared the Tory Europhobes – the hard core that put paid to Theresa May’s proposed agreement and then defenestrated her. They have been happy to ditch their erstwhile DUP allies in exchange for a greater prize: a deal that takes the United Kingdom out of the customs union and opens the road to the radical refashioning of the country that they seek. “Global Britain” will become a low-cost, low-regulation economy – a welcoming home for footloose international finance and for all the American imports and business models flowing in after the longed-for trade deal with the United States.

In his 19 August letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, Johnson noted that “although we will remain committed to world-class environmental, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU”. We may wonder what exactly he had in mind by “world-class”.

But there seems no reason not to believe him when he continued: “that is the point of our exit”. And what has really swung it for him with the Tory Europhobes is his success in getting all the “level playing field” assurances moved out of the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement and into the written-on-water Political Declaration.

If the EU does not like it and starts creating difficulties for a future UK/EU trade deal – well, it is only just over a year (as things now stand) until the transition period comes to an end, WTO rules kick in by default, and Britain’s escape from the European economic orbit can accelerate. No wonder those on the Tory right wing are now so happy.

Johnson’s momentum

Who knows what will happen in the next few days? Presumably, the EU will wait and see how the British parliamentary action unfolds before addressing the extension issue. There are now signs that the feeble, fence-sitting Labour opposition has finally woken up to what is afoot and will attempt to attach a referendum requirement to any approval of Johnson’s deal.

Traditional Tory Unionists – registering the belligerent noises now emanating from Unionist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, and the revived support for a new independence referendum in Scotland – may jib at backing a deal that so clearly endangers the UK’s very cohesion. But the smart money is on Johnson still having sufficient momentum to get his deal over the line – and following up with a general election triumph while the electorate are still sighing with relief, and the longer-term consequences of the agreement are not yet apparent.

So, a hard Brexit looms and, after it, a Trumpian transformation of Britain’s (England’s?) economy and political culture. Where does that leave the Remainers who for months now have outnumbered Leavers in the polls, and who marched on Saturday in such huge numbers to ask for their voices to be heard?

They may just have to suck it up. But they should also read Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian 1930s novel It Can’t Happen Here – and give some serious thought to how they can ensure it doesn’t.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.