Last month’s announcement of Theresa May’s resignation, brought forth once again the prospect of Boris Johnson as Britain’s prime minister.
Of course many are wondering whether a different leader would make a difference to the fraught Brexit negotiations – the answer is no. What is more likely to happen is that Johnson will be doing an impression of Yanis Varoufakis, the flamboyant Greek finance minister of 2015, trying to negotiate with Europe using the threat of no-deal self-destruction as the key argument. At least what Varoufakis lacked in competence, he made up in sex appeal. The following explains why Mr Johnson is likely to be in charge of a re-run of Greece’s 2015 experience.
What actually happened to Greece? In January 2015, the Greeks elected a party, Syriza, that ran on a platform of radical change to the way the country was negotiating the terms of its bailouts with Europe. Varoufakis was the celebrity economist brought in to show some teeth to the Eurocrats.
Negotiations did not go well. In February 2015 Greece was offered a compromise. As I explained in an earlier article, there was no support for Syriza from anyone, especially the Germans. Too much political capital has been invested in Europe supporting the status quo, to allow for a change of course. A bad deal was better than no deal for everyone involved, but the EU wasn’t about to rip its rulebook just because the Greeks sent in someone with bravado and a leather jacket. Europe’s deal was the only one on the table.
The Greeks refused the deal they were offered, like Britain has rejected the outcome of May’s negotiations. When asked to present a series of technical measures to meet bailout targets, Varoufakis submitted a list of odd, and in places nonsensical proposals. This was Greece’s final attempt to renegotiate, mirroring British attempts to alter the ‘backstop’ (the temporary solution to the Irish border problem that has plagued Brexit negotiations). Intransigence heralded the end.
Negotiations dragged on, the economy stagnated among all the uncertainty. Varoufakis’ critical error in February, led to a credit crunch that drove Greece to default on its IMF loans in the summer and to an internal moratorium on state payments to private parties, a sort of Mediterranean no-deal. The government reacted by trying to seize the initiative through calling a referendum on the state of the negotiations, Greece’s own EU exit referendum. The economy fell off a cliff. Syriza won the referendum, but then the Greek PM Alexis Tsipras quickly capitulated. There was no other choice, and when faced with political oblivion, clever politicians will choose survival.
If Johnson has an aptitude for anything, it is survival. Can ‘Boris’ succeed where Theresa May has failed? Can he reach a different outcome using the same technique that crushed Varoufakis? No, he cannot. Chutzpah is no substitute for argument and, Theresa May or no Theresa May, Brexit’s problems and contradictions are here to stay, regardless who is at the helm. What is Mr Johnson likely to do? He will of course play to the gallery and valiantly pretend to renegotiate but when he fails, which he will, let’s hope that he will perform a Tsipras-style volte face and save himself and Britain from the consequences of no-deal. Brexit means Brexit, and ultimately Boris means Boris.