Does Mr Johnson have a Brexit-Strategy?

By Professor Andreas Freytag 
FSU Jena, University of Stellenbosch, CESifo Research Network, and STIAS
September 13th, 2019
Since his inauguration in late July 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not missed a single opportunity to push himself into the international limelight and provoke controversial reactions in Britain and elsewhere. The tentative climax of the Johnson show was his forced prorogue of the British House of Commons a few weeks before Britain's final exit from the European Union (EU).

This escalated the situation in London after the House of Commons convened on September 3. First, a Conservative MP left the party and joined the Liberals (Lib-Dems). Thereafter, the Prime Minister dismissed 21 prominent oppositionists within the Conservative Party. He also indicated that they might not be considered as Conservative candidates in future elections. Subsequently, the British Parliament passed a law against the government to prevent a no-deal Brexit, before finally preventing new elections on October 15.

Thus, the Prime Minister apparently lost the power struggle. However, he concluded an agreement with the opposition on the morning of September 5. This agreement foresees that there would be no further government attempt to push through no-deal Brexit. The no-no-deal law consequently passed the upper house and should be signed by the Queen.

As a consequence of this agreement, there was a new debate in Parliament about elections, which again were rejected. Nevertheless, there could be new elections in the fall of this year, provided that the Labor Party who has pleaded for this for months, finally agrees. They seemed to believe that they cannot trust Mr Johnson and, therefore, remain hesitant. Thus, they prefer elections after October 31st. However, new elections can also be dangerous from the Prime Minister's point of view, as the example of the last election shows. Theresa May wanted a clear majority and a clear mandate for Brexit but in the end had to rely on the Northern Irish party (DUP). Maybe Mr Johnson is going to have a similar experience or even miss a majority. After all, he must compete not only against potential Remainers, but also against the Brexit party. However, it may be that they withdraw candidates to not endanger a majority for Brexit. Surprising results cannot not excluded.

All of this raises the question of what the Prime Minister really wants.

First, it is unclear how his politics relate to the British economy and the future economic situation of its citizens. According to an internal study by the British government, a no-deal-Brexit will cause chaos, at least in the short term. Food and drug shortages are threatening, ports could be in chaos, and the administrative capacity needed for the reconciliation of Brussels' competences seems to be lacking. There is also not much to be seen of the promised free trade agreements (FTAs) of Great Britain with the rest of the world, negotiation of which has to await resolution of Britain’s trade relations with the EU. The more important partners Japan, the US and finally the EU have not been convinced. Even Mr Trump’s ostentatious announcement of a great US-UK FTA can only be taken with caution. Such slow progress does not increase the government’s credibility. If the government had shown success here, the arguments against a disorderly Brexit would be weaker. Against this background, it would actually be necessary for the Prime Minister not to initiate a no-deal Brexit.

However, the public announcements Mr Johnson and – even more so – his advisor David Cummings have made, suggest that they do not care about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit. As in his Brexit campaign, the Prime Minister puts little emphasis on facts and accurate predictions. He rather appeals to the feelings and sensitivities of the citizens. It is highly unlikely that his acceptance of the prohibition of a no-deal-Brexit is driven by the fact that a regulated Brexit or a waiver would be better for Great Britain. Rather, it was a necessity to stay in power.

Second, the prime minister's attitude risks not only the prosperity of the country, but the existence of the United Kingdom. In Scotland there is both an overwhelming rejection of Brexit and a widespread desire for independence from England. Both seem to be related in so far as a Brexit that is more expensive for Scotland increases its willingness to vote for independence from the United Kingdom. It will not be easy to organize a new Scottish referendum, but it cannot be excluded. The potential reaction to a no-deal-Brexit in Northern Ireland also bears serious contemplation.

The third question, which haunts many observers, regards the prime minister's attitude towards his Conservative Party. The current hard course clearly sharpens the Party’s split. At the least the Prime Minister seems to have an amazingly phlegmatic attitude. He does not seem to care that the future of the Conservative Party is at stake.

Some observers have portrayed the Prime Minister as a clown or a gambler, whose only ambition is to be the Prime Minister, and who would have no interest in the well-being of the country. Following this argument, he does not have a serious plan except for "Johnson first!" It is always hard to accept such a simple argument, not least because it also implies that both party officials and voters have no proper judgment. That would be almost as dramatic as the Prime Minister's alleged clownery.

Nevertheless, the entire appearance of Boris Johnson does not reflect scrupulous and intense thoughts about the future of his country. Rather there are signs that he is determined to pursue the no-deal Brexit even against the law, thus accepting to be taken to court (but only after chaos emerged). That in itself is a frightening scenario. Perhaps new elections with a change of government, despite the unconvincing alternatives, are the best result Britain can achieve right now. That would certainly not be the plan of Boris Johnson, but would meet the ideas of many British citizens more than the current stalemate.

 

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