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Never in the field of Brexit conflict was so much blown up to so many, by so few words. Yes when Boris Johnson delivered his attention-grabbing TV clip on Thursday evening, the impact was instant. “He’s really going for No Deal!”, “Brace yourself, Britain!” “Attaboy, Bozza!” etc etc.
And on the face of it, these were very punchy words indeed. “I do think we need to be very, very clear, there is now a strong possibility – a strong possibility – that we will have a solution that is much more like an Australian relationship with the EU than a Canadian relationship with the EU.
“That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, there are plenty of ways that we can turn that to the advantage of both sides in the conversation.”
There are several reasons to think that is one enormous attempted bluff, albeit a reckless one. First are the theatrics. Johnson said the word “strong possibility” twice. He seemed to smirk when he said the word “Australian”. He tweeted this most inflammatory bit of the clip, warning it was time to get ready for “the Australian option”.
Furthermore, if he was serious about no-deal, why not say so straight after the talks with Ursula von der Leyen last night? It’s possible that Johnson’s media blitz – timed exactly for the six-o’clock news – was a retaliation for the European Commission president tweeting her own no-deal bluff this morning (she repeated the four areas where the EU thinks mini-deals could be struck to keep planes flying and trucks rolling on January 1).
There was other circumstantial evidence that this was sabre-rattling rhetoric rather than sword-plunging reality. Jacob Rees-Mogg refused to rule out a Christmas sitting of MPs to allow any last-minute deal to be rammed through the UK parliament. Dominic Raab talked about Sunday night’s “deadline” being “a moment of finality”, yet said “I can’t categorically exclude” the talks going on after it. Wriggle room? You betcha.
And cynics would point to the plain fact that even as Johnson was delivering his pooled broadcast clip, British Brexit negotiators were in Brussels round a table talking to their EU counterparts. Why would David Frost and Michel Barnier even be talking, if there was no hope from the Johnson-Von der Leyen dinner?
Johnson’s claim that a no-deal could be turned “to the advantage of both sides in the conversation” was itself perhaps a giveaway too. There would be no “conversation”, if there no deal really was his aim. Just as importantly, the EU hasn’t ever said that there is an “advantage” in going down the no deal route.
It was Donald Tusk who famously said “there are no winners, only losers” from Brexit. Referring to Johnson’s infamous line about post-Brexit Britain being able to “have the EU cake and eat it too”, Tusk was pretty frank: “There will be no cakes on the table for anyone. There will only be salt and vinegar. The words uttered by one of the leading campaigners for Brexit . . .[were] pure illusion.”
The economic downsides of no deal are well rehearsed (the OBR estimates it would lop a further 2% off UK GDP, on top of the 4% already lost from a thin deal). In security terms (which everyone seems to forget), the party of law and order could suffer badly too if terrorists or criminals slip through the net because of a lack of European cooperation.
But politically, a no deal makes no sense for Johnson either. It would gift Keir Starmer’s Labour a lasting chance to ram home his “incompetent Tories” narrative (“oven ready” promises half baked, “monumental failure of statecraft” etc etc). Even if some former Labour voters liked the frisson of flicking a V-sign at Brussels, polling suggests that many others fear the job losses it entails.
And the impact on other areas of England could be damaging for the Conservatives too. Don’t forget Starmer wants to win back not just the Red Wall but the Blue Bricks of Tory seats in the south. Nicola Sturgeon’s independence campaign would also get a massive shot in the arm, leaving Johnson the unenviable legacy as the Tory PM who broke up the UK.
One other possible clue to current Johnson’s mindset came during the Tory leadership hustings when he tried the no-deal bluff. “It is absolutely vital that we prepare for a no-deal Brexit if we are going to get a deal,” he said. And then he gave the game away by blurting out: “I think it is a million-to-one against – but it is vital that we prepare.”
There’s still time to draw back from the cliff, and as the Gove deal on Northern Ireland proves, both sides can find technical ways round the thorniest of problems. On fish, there could be a compromise on timetabling. On level playing field there could be a compromise on an independent panel and how quickly both sides impose tariffs.
Of course, the real problem for the EU right now is that Johnson seems to be enjoying himself as he floats the “Australia” [aka Afghanistan] option. In nuclear deterrence, Nixon’s madman theory was fine in scaring the Russians into thinking he could do anything, but everyone knew that it would be disastrous if the madman actually went mad. The PM’s talk of touring Paris and Berlin, when neither Merkel nor Macron wants to undermine EU unity, will certainly sound bonkers to many in France and Germany.
And as the clock ticks away, that’s perhaps the biggest danger of all here: an accidental no deal. In some ways this may be history repeating itself. The grim expression on Johnson’s (and Gove’s) face the morning after the referendum looked like that of a man who had bluffed on a future leadership ploy, only to wake up stunned that people had taken him at his word.
If Brexit was a Johnson newspaper column that “went wrong”, could a no-deal-on-trade be a Johnson negotiating gambit that goes wrong? Maybe the accidental prime minister (remember if Theresa May had not gone for a 2017 election, history could be very different) has hit on a scare-Brussels strategy that has been an accident waiting to happen all along.