Now that former Foreign Secretary and London Mayor Boris Johnson is the runaway candidate to become the next Conservative party leader and ergo the country’s Prime Minister, everyone is looking closely at his every move and word. And this includes not just his character and domestic exploits but also the detail behind his “eminently feasible” plan for Brexit.
Businesses, lobbyists and campaigning organisations have been watching every twitch on Brexit for the better part of two years.
There has been a lot of jargon as part of this, some of which meme-worthy (“red white and blue” anyone?) and some of it rather technical (“alternative arrangements”; “Malthouse compromise”). This is aside from the usual technical language which got hearts racing for the policy advisers across the country (divergence of standards; mutual recognition).
If Boris Johnson is to become the next PM on 23 July 2019, then soon the lobby will fill with people asking questions about when Brexit will finally be delivered. But the question on every campaigner’s and lobbyists mind is: “How will he actually deliver Brexit and what shape will it take?”
This question asks about the nature of the future relationship Mr Johnson may be advocating. He has said he would seek to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, despite Brussels rejecting this.
The question is also how hard or soft on the spectrum he will seek to draw his own red lines. This follows criticism that Theresa May had drawn her lines to deeply into the sand allowing her little negotiating wiggle room and that she had sought to square a circle with Brussels which was impossible to deliver.
Finally, the cursed and much commented parliamentary arithmetic now has sparks manic calculations over the possibility of a no confidence vote in Boris’ new administration (with rebels from inside the Conservative camp thinking about voting against the Government) if he sought to lead the UK out of the EU with no agreement at all (“no deal Brexit”).
With a “reset button” due to be pushed on the negotiations, pundits and campaigners are assessing what actions the future PM’s words will prompt and thus how things will play out by Halloween (and beyond).
So far rumour has it that Johnson is telling everyone what they want to hear. In the media, he is light on the detail. However, most interesting so far is one of the comments Johnson made is about his plan to “disaggregate” Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal agreement, starting from the promises made to EU citizens’ rights:
“There is a clear way that the now effectively defunct withdrawal agreement can be disaggregated. The good bits of it can be taken out” he said, and passed by Parliament.
The parts that have stopped the agreement being passed before, would then be dealt with during the transition period after a Withdrawal Agreement was passed by MPs.
The key barrier to the agreement passing before was the backstop provision for the Irish Border. At the time Boris Johnson advocated for the “maximum facilitation” technique (another bit of reheated jargon) which could be used to conduct checks via technology, avoiding any border infrastructure.
A newly appointed Business and Trade Union Alternative Arrangements Advisory Group, has already been put to work on alternative arrangements to help replace the Northern Irish backstop by the end of 2020 backed by £20 million of funding to support the development, testing or piloting of any ideas that emerge from the advisory groups.
This sounds familiar and brings back echoes of Penny Mordaunt and Andrea Leadsom’s plan for a “managed no deal” which would have included the UK leaving the European Union without a trade deal, but with a two-year transitional period to avoid a “cliff edge”. At the time, it was reported that no fewer than 11 Cabinet ministers were in favour of a managed no deal if a Withdrawal Agreement could not be agreed by Parliament.
Criticisms at the time included that a Brexit transition period has legal status only as part of a negotiated withdrawal agreement.
The wiggle room Johnson might seek to create lies in the technique already employed by Theresa May: by getting further commitments in the Political Declaration rather than the Withdrawal Agreement, which he may try to sell to the Commons in parts rather than in bulk, and leaving the backstop and EU divorce payment out.
Insider commentators have for a while suggested that a no deal re-brand might be on the horizon, meaning that the UK could leave the EU without a comprehensive, wide ranging Withdrawal Agreement package deal. This could be replaced with mini treaties which could pass through Parliament facilitating withdrawal step by step while securing bi-lateral agreements in areas of mutual interest in order to retain the status quo in practical terms to avoid the cliff edge effects of no deal, such as restrictions to air travel and other areas which the Government has already prepared for.
The reason why Brussels might grant this is simple: common curtesy to a new national leader and fear of the optics should a refusal lead to no deal by default and be branded as a push out of the club.
If this works out for Boris, this is the only way to break the deadlock that does not involve a second referendum and instead ensures practical withdrawal from the EU to allow future relationship negotiations to formally commence.
The proposition could certainly secure votes from Theresa May’s former naysayers, namely the European Research Group (ERG) led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and the DUP.
Johnson has confirmed the UK “must” leave by October 31, deal or no deal which may get him support from the DUP, with whom the Conservative party has a formal support agreement to secure a majority in the Commons. The DUP’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson joined a campaign pressing the candidates to agree to leave the EU with or without a deal on 31 October. Since then Johnson has upped his comments to leaving the EU with or without a deal, “do or die.”
However we have seen the Commons pull a few rabbits out of the hat this last session, and Johnson confirmed if parliament were to take no deal off the table, “of course the prime minister has to obey the law.”
Following Johnson’s promise to “not going to bottle it” on the EU exit date, what could go wrong?