Has Boris Johnson got “a cunning plan”?

By Bob Saunders


It is the middle of August. We now have a new Government, elected only by a tiny fraction of voters (Conservative Party members), which appears to be pushing the country off the edge of the cliff into a no-deal Brexit, without a mandate. For those who believe that the UK’s best interest would be served by continuing membership of the European Union it is easy to feel completely disenfranchised and powerless. At the same time journalists are discovering ever more arcane ways for a dictatorial Prime Minister to carry out his threats while ignoring the very Parliamentary Sovereignty that was apparently the reason why we needed to leave the EU in the first place. It is not surprising that many of us are wondering how we ended up in this mess. The purpose of this article is to suggest that while the future is difficult to predict there is a reasonable approach to adopt and it is helpful to take a guess at what Mr Johnson might actually be planning.


Firstly, despite all of the current government’s bluster to deliver Brexit on 31stOctober the political realities in the House of Commons or the corridors of power in Brussels have not changed. If anything, the likelihood of Parliament approving a no-deal Brexit has reduced as a number of more reasonable members of the Conservative Party are no longer bound by ministerial loyalty and are free to put Country before Party from the back benches. The numbers of MPs likely therefore to block a no-deal Brexit have most likely increased. The single greatest weakness of the UK in the whole negotiating strategy with the EU since the referendum has been the complete failure to find a political consensus in Parliament on a position that could deliver the referendum result. The new government has done nothing since taking office to resolve this problem.


At the same time, it is clear that the rhetoric is clearly intended to make everyone believe that Mr Johnson means to deliver a Brexit at the end of October. The strident demands that the EU back down on reopening the Withdrawal Agreement are readily appreciated by true believers however, the lack of any concrete proposals of what changes are actually required means that the EU has no basis for offering any concessions. More fundamentally the idea that there can be no border in Northern Ireland without at least that part of the UK accepting the rules and regulations of the single market is nonsense. The EU cannot accept an open border unless it no longer wants to enforce the common market rules that are fundamental to the EU’s existence. Indeed, does the UK also want to allow smuggling and illegal immigration? The only way to honour the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland and leave the institutions of the EU, without creating a border is for the whole of the UK to accept the common external tariffs and rules and regulations of the single market. Correctly this is Brexit In Name Only, leaving us bound to the rules but without any say in their future. We can agree with the Brexiteers that this is worse that the current deal of membership. So, what the current Government wants is to be able to blame the EU for its failure to honour the Good Friday Agreement. Despite claims to the contrary Brexiteers are willing to risk the future of peace in Northern Ireland to achieve the freedoms they seek. 


They appear to believe that both the likelihood of Northern Ireland leaving the UK as well as the strengthening of Scottish Nationalism are unrealistic fears, simply part of what they label as “project fear”. My guess is that their reasons for dismissing all the negative impacts of leaving can be summed up in the oft repeated simple statement: “We were fine before we entered the Common Market and so will be fine when we leave.” That the world has changed, and you cannot wind back the clock are arguments that are falling on deaf ears.


I do believe that Johnson would prefer to have a deal than to crash out although he knows that the really difficult negotiations would actually start on the future trading arrangements once we have left and he may judge that a period while we seek to replace the trade lost with our neighbours with the Americans and others may make everyone more realistic about what can be achieved. In this case, there is a possibility that in early September, following late night meetings in Brussels, he will emerge with some sort of fig leaf and try and convince Parliament that this is sufficiently different to Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement and should be accepted. There are already Labour MPs who have publicly stated that given the current situation, and with the benefits of hindsight they should have supported May’s deal as the best solution for their constituents and more realistically the chances of them hanging onto their jobs.  If a further iteration of the WA emerges, our role will be scrutinising any proposals on their merits and point out why they fail to provide for any lasting solutions. Furthermore, to convince those who just want the whole problem to go away we need to make it clear that leaving with transition arrangements in place is just kicking the difficult decisions down the road.


Assuming that by the middle of September there is no likelihood of a Withdrawal Agreement achieving House of Commons approval Johnson will face the task of trying to force a no-deal Brexit through or calling a snap election to obtain a genuine public mandate for this policy. While the latter clearly poses huge risks, I think it is the more likely outcome for a number of reasons. Johnson, like Corbyn, believes that he is a good campaigner who can convince people to support him during an election period. He also believes that he can paint Corbyn as a dangerous menace and that by threatening those who currently support Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party that if they do not vote Tory they will let in a dangerous left-wing government and the chance to achieve Brexit will be lost for ever. 


All the current policy decisions about Law and Order are targeted at appealing to these voters, those looking for simple solutions. We can expect more of the same. This election will come before the end of October and Johnson’s focus will be exclusively on Brexit Party supporters. The polling statistics overall suggest that if he can get their support in the ballot box, he might command a majority in the House of Commons. The return of the Conservative Party to its rightful place, as seen by its supporters, as the natural Party of Government will do much to heal its current divisions. He can then look forward to a prolonged period as Prime Minister, which is above all his main objective.


The alternative of trying to force a no-deal Brexit against a hostile Parliament by using procedural tactics is also full of risks. There are many clever people in Parliament who will try and thwart this. There are already moves in the courts, which will bring in other forces and reduce the opportunity for Johnson and his team to control the agenda. In politics keeping the initiative and writing the agenda are clear advantages and given the incompetence and disarray of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, Johnson is more likely to judge his chances of success to be greater in a General Election than in stuffy courts and the machinations of Parliamentary committees.  Finally, such a tactic, with its boldness will appeal to Johnson’s self-image as a risk taker in the Churchillian mould. 


Trying to call an election for early November and using the lack of a sitting Parliament on October 31stto achieve a Brexit by default, as being speculated by some pundits, has the benefit of creating confusion currently and encouraging his opponents to spend time working on how they can thwart this but if he did try this tactic there is both the risk that the courts and sitting MPs  will find a way to prevent the UK from leaving until the election result was known and a new Government was formed. At the same time such an election would introduce arguments about the nature of Government rather than the simple message that Boris Johnson wants people to hear: “that he supports the people’s will to leave the EU and will not be distracted by details”. 


If there is a snap election what can Remainers do? We have already started to organise Remain Alliance candidates. Work needs to be carried out within each constituency to try and find a single Remain candidate to fight against the Johnson supporting Brexit Tory. Given that this election will have been called to drive through Brexit one would hope that Labour would realise that continuing to sit on the fence is not a credible position, but the current leadership seems entirely capable of continuing to live in a parallel universe. However local MPs and candidates may be open to agreeing to supporting a clear Remain position. Where this is not possible then allowing for different tactics in Wales and Scotland it must be a priority to get Liberal Democrats and Green candidates to realise what is at stake and agree not to stand against each other. While it is unlikely that this group could end up commanding a majority it is not unreasonable to expect that together with a SNP block in Scotland the Lib Dems and Greens could hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament, with no majority to pursue Brexit and presumably also a joint agreement to change the voting system to proportional voting. This is a target worth trying and potentially achievable, so it should be the focus for local groups. 


At the moment it may seem that Boris Johnson has provided the Brexiteers with renewed enthusiasm that they may win the war but if you look a little deeper it is clear that our arguments are still fundamentally correct. If we can continue to convince people that the realities of 2019 are very different to the promises made in 2016 we can prevent the UK making the biggest mistake since it decided to invade Suez and achieve our objective of the UK retaining its membership of the European Union. 

Bob Saunders