Article Published November 25th, 2020

Shortly after the EU referendum of 2016, a “former Conservative minister” supposedly remarked that Brexit would force the Conservative Party to choose between destroying the country and destroying itself.

Both the attribution and exact wording of this epigram may be questioned, but precisely this choice is the dilemma with which Boris Johnson is now wrestling.  Any arrangement he may reach with the EU will inevitably trigger another, possibly terminal bout of Conservative internal strife; “no deal” at the end of the transition period will be a demonstrable failure to protect the UK’s economic interests and may well provoke irreparable fissures in its territorial integrity. The reality of Brexit has always revolved around a series of unpalatable choices for the British government: the last days of 2020 are faithfully following this pattern for the Prime Minister.

Although Johnson’s dilemma arises from specific dysfunctions within the Conservative Party, it is a fitting end to the entire Brexit process that six weeks before the end of the transition period so many issues relating to future UK-EU relations remain unresolved. Ambiguity and inconsistency were deliberate tactics pursued by the Leave campaign in 2016. The Leave campaigners who have dominated Conservative European policy since 2016 have found it unsurprisingly impossible to translate this equivocation into a workable political agenda for Brexit. The abrupt shifts and reversals of British policy during the Brexit negotiations have been the inevitable consequence of this intellectual incoherence. An extra level of irony has been added to this comedy of uncertainty by the overblown claims of the Prime Minister in the General Election that Brexit would be assured by the “oven-ready” agreement he had negotiated with the EU. This colourful rhetoric assured for him in 2019 a large Parliamentary majority, a majority which he initially used to pass the Withdrawal Agreement he had indeed negotiated with the EU and then deliberately to undermine that agreement with his Internal Market Bill.

It’s the Conservative Party, stupid

Until now, it is obviously the internal management of the Conservative Party rather than the national interest that has dominated British governmental tactics in the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May was forced by her Party to a premature notification of British withdrawal from the EU; she was forced to adopt with minimal consultation and reflection the economically damaging British withdrawal from both the Single Market and Customs Union; her capacity to negotiate effectively with the EU was sabotaged by ceaseless rebellions within her Party; and British business finds itself woefully underprepared for the new formalities leaving the Internal Market and Customs Union will inevitably impose because the government cannot face the political embarrassment of admitting unequivocally to these new constraints.  Brexit will be more economically damaging for the country than it needed to be, and that extra damage is largely as a result of internal Party manoeuvrings.

But it is not just in the economic sphere that the incoherence of Brexit has been profoundly threatening. The way Brexit has been pursued has significant constitutional implications as well. May was displaced as Prime Minister largely because she believed that continued British membership of the Customs Union was essential to preserving Northern Ireland within the UK. Her successor found himself signing a Withdrawal Agreement which will erect divisive new barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The SNP loses no opportunity to remind Scottish voters that in their great majority they voted to remain in the EU. It has watched support for Scottish independence steadily rise since 2016 and is likely to form a new government in 2021 with a manifesto commitment (mandate) to call a second independence referendum.  In Wales, a YouGov poll last month showed that nearly a quarter of Welsh voters would support independence in a referendum. Conservative commentary on the differing decisions adopted by the four UK nations during the COVID-19 pandemic has always been derogatory and dismissive, designed to please the Party’s overwhelmingly English membership. Few commentators are in any doubt that a “no deal” Brexit in particular would encourage yet further separatist enthusiasm throughout the UK.

A much-discussed opinion poll in 2019 suggested that 63% of Conservative members thought the breakup of the UK was an acceptable price to pay for implementing Brexit. Many found this outcome surprising in a Party officially entitled the “Conservative and Unionist Party.” But over the past 20 years important shifts have taken place in the Party’s ideology and attitudes, transforming it into something much nearer to an English nationalist party than it has ever been in its recent history. Above all, anti-Europeanism and its present Brexit manifestation have come to be the glue holding an otherwise much divided Party together. Johnson is a Prime Minister especially dependent upon his Party’s support. If he is to retain it, he must tread with extreme care when it comes to the nature and presentation of any final arrangement with the EU.

Johnson should watch his back

It is sometimes assumed that because the Prime Minister has a substantial Parliamentary majority he will be able inevitably to cajole, bully and persuade his Party into eventually accepting whatever treaty he finally presents to Parliament before year-end. This is at best an oversimplification. He might emerge victorious from such a contest, particularly if Labour abstains or votes to endorse the negotiated document.  But the outcome could never be predicted with certainty beforehand and any plausible agreement will inevitably provoke vigorous dissatisfaction among the most radical Eurosceptic Conservative MPs. Under May, these MPs showed themselves to be ruthless, well-organised and energetic. Johnson must fear that this weaponry will be directed against him if he is seen to make unacceptable concessions to the EU in order to achieve agreement. His present political authority is much less dominating than it was a year ago. He may well conclude that a fight with his backbenchers, with the overwhelmingly Eurosceptic membership of his Party and the Eurosceptic press is a battle that he cannot be sure of winning – and even if he does, at an unacceptable cost to his Premiership.

One further consideration may weigh with the Prime Minister. Given the poor preparation for the new Brexit formalities at the beginning of 2021, it now seems unavoidable that in the first half of next year there will be considerable and photogenic disruption in and around the ports linked closely to continental Europe. If Johnson has signed an agreement which can be seen to have facilitated this confusion, he will find it hard to escape widespread criticism for his role in the ensuing chaos. Nor will the benefits of any “deal” signed remotely approximate to the supposed benefits of Brexit promised by the Leave campaign in 2016.  There would be attractions for the Prime Minister to embrace a “no deal” Brexit which would allow him to blame the EU, at least initially, for the disruption and the government’s poor preparation.   This government’s approach to CV-19 has revolved round political positioning and the avoidance of blame. It would not be surprising if it behaved similarly in the concluding moments of the post-Brexit negotiations. CV-19 and the EU would be an attractive pair of villains in governmental self-exculpation next year.

Hanging by a thread

There are credible reports that the latest national lockdown was provoked by the leak of the contents of a private discussion between the Prime Minister and his closest colleagues. This outcome was not necessarily the one desired by the leaker.  It is entirely possible that some similar random event over the coming days or weeks will tip the scales between a “deal” and “no deal.” As he himself might put it, the Prime Minister finds himself between Scylla and Charybdis. There is rich irony in the fact that the original purveyor of having your cake and eating it should now find himself confronted with the opposite set of circumstances. Far from possessing an embarrassment of choice, he is now reduced to two bleakly unattractive options, between which he seems to oscillate. Not the least likely outcome is that the year will end with “no deal” because Johnson is unable to make up his mind. The Brexit process, begun with a bang by Johnson in 2016, may well end with a whimper on 31st December, 2020.