It is now a little over half a decade since David Cameron introduced the legislation for a referendum on EU membership. And it is four months since Boris Johnson proclaimed that he had successfully brought “the whole political wrangle” of Brexit to an end.
But Brexit was not done, far from it. Another event that day – the first recorded case of Covid-19 in the UK – ultimately meant that relations with the European Union, for the first sustained period in half a decade, have not been the most pressing policy problem facing the prime minister.
Coping with Covid-19 will be the central task confronting the British state for some time. Yet a crunch point on Brexit has also arrived. Big decisions about the future of our most important trading relationship will be made over the next few weeks. And at that point, the two crises will begin to interact.
Despite his 80-seat majority and his outward nonchalance, backbench frustration over Dominic Cummings will have shaken the prime minister. The gradually rising number of Conservative backbenchers, rather than the mounting pile of evidence against Cummings, provided his biggest headache. And it is in this context that he will have to make some key decisions.
Two in particular will need to be managed in the next month: whether the mooted easing of lockdown measures will be able to continue as planned, with pubs opening by July 4; and a decision by June 30 on whether the UK government will try and give itself more time on Brexit – whether to negotiate a deal, or prepare for no deal – through an extension to the transition period.
At first blush, dealing with two crises instead of one looks like a double misfortune for a politician who has – to date – often been a lucky General. If Boris Johnson were to let either date slip – should he ask for an extension (even if repackaged as something else) or fail to open up the economy – a large portion of his party, already restless, will react negatively. Yet the art of party management is the politics of give and take, and Johnson could soon see the ailing negotiation as a source of strength in shoring up internal support.
On both these key decisions, pressure from within his party runs against the public mood. The public remain circumspect about ending lockdown, continuing to prioritise reducing the immediate negative health impacts of coronavirus over limiting negative effects of the lockdown measures. Equally, by a two to one margin, a majority of the country – including over a third of Leave voters – are happy to support extending the Brexit transition period, given the current context.
The problem is that powerful section of the parliamentary Conservative party is both bullish on lockdown and uncompromising on transition. The strongest backers of Brexit – David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker – are those who have lobbied hardest for a significant opening up of the economy and for the government to go further and faster. If you are a Eurosceptic, in the House of Commons at least, it seems you are more likely to be a lockdown sceptic.
It is not just the personalities that has summoned a sense of déjà vu with the Brexit debates of the past. The vivid primary colours in which the arguments are made also have a familiar feel. The freedom of speech of those in favour of ending lockdown is, we are told, being curtailed by identity politics fanatics, and ”liberal bubble hysteria”. The unions and the bourgeoisie have formed an unholy alliance. And those bloody experts have (again) waged a campaign based on fear. Welcome back to the politics of social values which underpinned the Brexit debate.
It is not inevitable – though it is certainly possible – that at some point in 2020 Boris Johnson will have to let down this section of the party, either over their old cause of Brexit or their new anti-lockdown crusade. And herein lies the rub. It is the latter decision that is more politically sensitive. As a result, the merits or otherwise of extending the transition period will be part of a wider calculation about the management of the Conservative party. A decision not to extend transition could come to seem like a pound of flesh worth paying – whatever the implications – to keep a restive parliamentary party onside.
After all, if the UK experiences a second significant spike in infections following a truncated period in isolation, either in the summer or into the Autumn, Johnson’s Premiership could begin to be in trouble. Indeed, if controlling the virus proves incompatible with loosening restrictions at any point over the next 12 months, as we have seen elsewhere, more stringent measures could need to be reintroduced. And as James Johnson has pointed out, there is less of a public clamour for prioritising the economy over public health here than in other comparable democracies. A wrong decision would leave Johnson with nowhere to hide.
On the other hand, in the short term at least, failing to extend transition seems relatively (politically) cost-free. When it comes to transition, the prime minister does not face any real public pressure. The public, if asked, say extension may be a practical idea. Yet few are paying attention to the negotiations. The Leader of the Opposition is not willing to make the public case for extension. He is willing to prosecute the case that Johnson has made the wrong strategic mistakes in handling Covid-19.
These short-term considerations could well be important in shoring up the prime minister’s position, giving Johnson maximum room for manoeuvre as he makes some of the biggest decisions of his life on lockdown. Ultimately, the cost to the economy is likely to be viewed as the price worth paying.
Professor Anand Menon is director and Dr Alan Wager is research associate at UK in a Changing Europe.