Why A ‘No-Deal’ Brexit Is Back, No Matter What Boris Johnson Wants To Call It

If politics trump economics, neither Brussels nor London may have much incentive to get any agreement.

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Aussie rules

Brexiteer Andrea Jenkyns clearly didn’t get the memo, or didn’t read it. Tory whips’ had today drafted hilariously clunky ‘lines to take’ for backbenchers (a leak of which ended up in HuffPost’s hands) when discussing Boris Johnson’s hardball negotiating mandate for trade talks with Brussels. “Do not use phrases such as ‘deal /no deal’,” MPs were told.

But Jenkyns couldn’t help herself. Like many Leavers, ‘no deal’ holds no fear for her. “It’s great to have a government who plays hardball with the EU,” she tweeted. “No deal back on the table in June if the EU doesn’t agree a trade deal. Great, bring it on!”

The lines-to-take memo had other finger-wagging edicts designed to wipe Mayisms from backbenchers’ memory chips: “don’t use the word ‘partnership’ about the future relationship, still less ‘deep’ or ‘special’ partnership; “do not use the term ‘Brexit’, save as a historical event that took place on 31 January 2020”; “if hyperbole is absolutely essential [my favourite this], only make reference to a deal ‘at least as good as’ CETA [a basic Canada-style free trade deal],”

What was perhaps most striking in the new ‘lexicon’ was a determination not to use Brussels-style language. No.10 officials have for some weeks avoided copying the phrase ‘mandate’ (Eurocrats love that one) to describe their approach to the talks. Instead, the document published by the UK today was simply called ‘The UK’s Approach To Negotiations’.

And most telling of all, given how central this issue is to the whole talks, the Tory whips’ memo had this stern advice: “Use ‘avoiding trade distortions’. not ‘level playing field’.” That level playing field is the EU’s big demand and was indeed part of the political declaration Johnson signed up to last year.

But the UK points out that the phrase was mentioned in just one paragraph (para 77 to be precise) of the declaration. The EU wanted a much tougher and more extensive section on this but Johnson’s team refused at the time. Unsurprisingly, the EU’s own mandate for coming talks has twenty references to level playing field.

In fact, Johnson believes he signed up to a very narrow definition of this concept, as it applies to a Canada-style deal. It’s the EU which is moving away from what was agreed, not the UK, that’s the firm the feeling in No.10. With the trade talks due to start on Monday, it looks like a tough road ahead.

One genuinely new element in today’s document was a plan for a new public consultation on “the economic implications of the future relationship”, starting “this spring”. However, it is understood that there is no commitment to actually publishing the outcome of the consultation. That suggests the public and business won’t be given a single figure on the financial costs (or benefits) of a Canada-style deal or a no-trade deal outcome.

Speaking of which, the UK’s negotiating guidelines today insist on again using the PM’s own euphemism for a ‘no-trade deal’ (as some refer to it) scenario, calling it the ‘Australia’ option. Australia sounds nice and sunny and full of beach barbeques, but the reality is the UK would be on World Trade Organisation rules and life could get chilly indeed for British business.

Those businesses had better get used to no-trade deal, especially as ministers are planning for new border and port checks. Yet maybe the truth is that a bare-bones Canada deal won’t in reality look much different from a WTO scenario anyway.

Some trade experts still think the sabre-rattling is just that. But if the Canada deal is so thin that it’s barely distinguishable from no-deal, neither No.10 nor Brussels have much incentive to do anything other than prepare for the worst.

The EU may put the integrity of its own political union ahead of economics, just as the UK looks like putting sovereignty ahead of any medium term economic pain. No matter what you call that, it will leave cross-Channel relations looking fraughter than ever.

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