How to get this point across. Things have changed in the UK – really, really changed – now that Boris Johnson is PM.
It’s not just that media are running fewer pieces about his unsuitability and even one or two insightful ones. It’s not simply the uncompromising behind-the-scenes machinery and advisory appointments, bringing in his London Mayoral team and the folk from the Brexit referendum campaign (strategy adviser Dominic Cummings looks a key figure – not many people can boast a 10,000 word blog post on cognitive technologies and the vituperation to brand a senior cabinet minister ‘lazy as a toad’). It’s not even the rehabilitation of Michael Gove (the former ally who betrayed him in the 2016 leadership battle).
No – the difference is that Boris has a strategy. Its simple, clear and time-limited. And he has started implementing it immediately.
The strategy has three elements: 1) A post-Brexit economic policy; 2) a clear Brexit offer for the EU, and leaving on 31 October whether or not the EU agrees; and 3) daring Parliament to force an early general election, if it wants to stop him.
The post-Brexit economic policy is already rolling out in formal announcements and informal hints. It’s essentially liberal with extra spending: free-ish trade all round (the May government had already developed a sensible contingency policy for temporarily lowering tariffs in case of no-deal Brexit), lower business taxes, lowering the regulatory burden on cutting edge industries, a supportive high-skilled immigration policy, infrastructure spending, more police and generous treatment of EU nationals in the UK.
The clear Brexit offer to the EU is emerging. Johnson has announced that the ‘Irish backstop’ – the device to keep Northern Ireland, and perhaps the UK, linked into the EU’s single market – has to go. This would clear the ground for rapid transition to a free trade agreement with better-than-WTO terms – say zero tariffs with reasonable protection for the UK’s service industries, particularly financial services. In return, the UK would pay over the £39 billion divorce settlement, perhaps with the promise of goodwill on some of the issues left for later resolution (eg, future fishing rights). [Note to reader – the EU has declared this unacceptable in advance.]
The Parliamentary strategy is to force his opponents to derail his Brexit strategy by bringing his Government down. He then runs on a platform of delivering Brexit (perhaps taking up the Brexit party’s suggestion of an electoral pact to unite the pro-Brexit forces), while his opponents – split between those who want to return to the EU and those who just want to keep talking to little obvious purpose – are required to justify their actions.
Who knows how this will work out? The bookmakers rate the chance of a general election this year at nearly 50%. But if Johnson holds his nerve, his strategy does force all the participants to make clear where they stand.
It gives the EU plenty to think about. The Financial Times is reporting that it has taken fewer steps than the UK to offset a no-deal Brexit. But these tangible measures are probably less important than the intangible ones. Boris Johnson’s accession shows that meaningful actions flow only from clear thinking. Financial Times commentator Wolfgang Munchau fears that his continental compatriots have yet to face up to the implications of a no-deal Brexit:
“I would advise EU leaders to look in the mirror and test whether their determination to uphold the Irish backstop would still hold in the hours before the advancing deadline. It is one thing to claim solidarity with Ireland as a principle; another to tell factory workers who stand to lose their jobs that this is a price worth paying. The tough negotiating stance was, at least in part, informed by assuming a near-zero probability for a no-deal outcome.”
Boris Johnson’s strategy takes account of deal and no-deal outcomes in equal measure. The EU’s strategy may not.