Why Boris Johnson’s Tough Talk On Trade Sounds Like Groundhog Day All Over Again

PM and EU seem far apart. Just like they did last year - before they did a deal.

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Flags of convenience

In his very first speech as PM last year, Boris Johnson promised “to end the groundhoggery of Brexit”. Yet as he tried to sketch his vision of post-Brexit trade links with the EU today, I couldn’t help thinking: here we go, it’s deja vu all over again.

Way back in January 2017, a British prime minister summoned diplomats to the elaborately decorated Long Gallery of Lancaster House, its ceiling showing saints borne to heaven by angels. The backdrop slogan read ‘A Global Britain’. The PM proceeded to set down some red lines, lines that were over time reduced to a mild pink.

Today, a British prime minister summoned ambassadors (I spotted a BRZ 1 numberplate among the procession of black limos) to the ornate Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College, its ceiling depicting angels descending from heaven. The backdrop slogan read ‘Unleashing Britain’s potential’. The PM proceeded to set down his deep red line that he did not ‘seek’ ‘alignment of any kind’ with the EU’s rules and regulations.

So, will Johnson’s red lines wash away like Theresa May’s? Of course one huge difference is that whopping 80-seat Commons majority that Johnson currently holds. Another is that he is miles better than May ever was at painting an upbeat picture of Britain heading out into the world, freed of its EU membership.

The two are of course related, because it was Johnson’s turns of phrase that helped him notch up that impressive victory over Labour last December. Yet while broad brush strokes can win you an election, it’s hard detail that wins you a decent trade deal. And judging by his outing in Greenwich, that detail is yet to come.

There was naturally some soaring rhetoric - “the vessel puffs her sail…the wind sits in the mast...we are embarked now on a great voyage” - but the speech was pretty thin on specifics, and the written ministerial statement that came later was just as emaciated.

In contrast, in a drab briefing room in Brussels, the EU’s Michel Barnier had no poetry, only the prose of stacks of dense paragraphs of negotiating mandates. The gulf between the two men seemed light years, not just an English Channel’s width, apart. Barnier talked a lot about level playing fields, while Johnson’s eyes gazed towards the open seas beyond.

The PM was pretty disingenuous today when he pretended all the media questions about ‘no deal’ were about ‘no withdrawal agreement’ rather than ‘no trade deal’. In fact he spent a lot of time trying not to say things (Brexit simply ‘begins with a B’, ‘Australia’ was his new euphemism for ‘WTO terms’) rather than actually saying anything meaningful.

His paean of praise to free trade is of course undercut by the fact that Brexit implies more barriers across borders, not fewer. The PM made clear he wants either a ‘Canada-style’ deal or an ‘Australian’ one, with both sounding more like flags of convenience than actual concrete negotiating offers.‌

A year after her Lancaster House speech, May left Brexiteer ministers thinking ‘divergence has won the day’ following an early Chequers meeting, even though it had lost. Divergence is again the buzzword now, and Johnson is certainly not going to get anything like the one his predecessor signed up to.

But dig deeper into today and it’s possible to see glimmers of compromise on both sides. Barnier didn’t seem overly obsessed about ‘alignment’ and Johnson had wriggle room on the same issue. Finding a way of delivering the outcome of high standards (alignment that isn’t called alignment) is not impossible. A lot of hard negotiation is obviously needed, but it’s possible to see a deal being done in the interest of both sides before the end of the year.

And just like Johnson’s talks with the EU last year on a withdrawal agreement, the trick will lie in both sides being able to sell the deal back home. Brussels will want to say it has avoided ‘dumping’, London will want to say it has retained its sovereign autonomy. Trade won’t be ‘frictionless’ and the politics won’t be either, yet mutual self-interest will again probably be paramount. See what I mean about groundhoggery?

Perhaps the biggest losers however are not the politicians but business. It feels as if firms should be planning now for WTO terms with all the tariffs and ‘divergent’ regulation that implies. And even if the PM and the EU hammer out a compromise later this year, business may already have had to spend hard cash preparing for an effective no-deal on trade. Let’s see how much strategic patience they have.

The PM spoke today yards from the Cutty Sark, that symbol of high-speed, frictionless trade on the high seas. Yet the last time I visited Greenwich it was for an exhibition about a less happy vessel, the Titanic. Post-Brexit Britain’s ship of state will probably be much less exciting than either extreme. But that doesn’t make for flamboyant speeches.

Boris Johnson outlines his government's negotiating stance with the European Union after Brexit, during a key speech at the Old Naval College in Greenwich, London.
Boris Johnson outlines his government's negotiating stance with the European Union after Brexit, during a key speech at the Old Naval College in Greenwich, London.

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