Chris Johns: Why did Boris Johnson perform the mother of all Brexit U-turns?
Logic and facts have an annoying habit of asserting themselves: perhaps the only surprise is that it took so long
Boris Johnson: he wants to do lots of deals, not least with the US. But the logic of the promised close relationship with the EU means that deals with other countries become much harder
Why did Johnson perform the mother of all U-turns? We might ponder the mindset of Theresa May as the deal that finished her premiership makes a return from the dead. A deal that Johnson previously described as “crazy”. Of course, it’s not exactly the same deal. The last one was a pig with lipstick on; the latest version has had the lipstick wiped away.
We will probably never know why Johnson caved. Logic and facts have an annoying habit of asserting themselves: perhaps the only surprise is that it took quite so long.
Many of us have pointed out that if a country leaves a customs union there will have to be customs checks somewhere. No amount of waffle and bluster can change that simple fact. Those checks are now, under current proposals, to be between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Border is proposed to be in the Irish Sea.
There has been a rhythm to the negotiations between the UK and EU that spans both the Johnson and May governments. Something is agreed with Brussels. That agreement is then rejected by the DUP and the ERG. Promises are then made to the DUP/ERG, which are unacceptable to Brussels. A new deal is then done with the EU, which the DUP/ERG promises to consider and then rejects. And so on. It is perfectly possible that we are just in the rinse and repeat mode of this endless fiasco; the hope is that the circle has been broken.
One of the side stories of recent events has been Johnson rowing back from previous commitments regarding the shape of the UK’s long-term relationship with Europe. Previous promises made by the British to stay in close alignment with the EU were designed to facilitate a smooth, rapid and comprehensive free trade deal. That’s not the zombie deal currently making a comeback but the one to be negotiated during the transition period.
Johnson wants to do lots of deals, not least with the US. But the logic of the promised close relationship with the EU means that deals with other countries become much harder. It’s a trade-off, one of many in this whole wretched process.
Trade-offs involve winners and losers. Leadership involves explaining this, particularly to the losers and then standing up to and/or compensating the losers when they complain. It’s just politics in the round. Indecisive crowd-pleasers like Johnson can never quite bring themselves to see the simple logic. Perhaps he has finally seen the light. Or a chink of it at least.
Relatively unnoticed in the events of the week was a statement by a leading group of UK businesses warning what would happen in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It was the latest in a long line of such warnings: this one was different because it came not from economists or think tanks but from real businesses.
Also this week, Sunderland’s local newspaper carried headlines reflecting Nissan’s likely cancellation of investment in the event of no-deal. Sunderland’s huge Nissan plant, employing 6,000 people, would be very adversely affected. A further 24,000 people in the supply chain could be at risk.
That Nissan factory is now the UK’s largest car plant. It has just celebrated the production of its 10 millionth car. Back in 2016 Nissan was given promises by May about the closeness of Britain’s future relationship with the EU. On the back of those promises Nissan indicated it would produce the next version of the top-selling Qashqai car in Sunderland. The company now says it is not so sure.
There’s a trade-off: a free trade deal with the US that lowers food safety standards opens the NHS to US drug firms’ prices and risks UK car production. And lots of other negatives. All for what? The gains from those non-EU free trade deals are estimated to be very small.
Part of me thinks that Johnson doesn’t really mean it. While that sentiment has general applicability, in this case I have a feeling he is just playing with ERG. Promising a very loose and distant future relationship with the EU plays to all their atavistic instincts. The ERG can’t see much difference between no-deal and a future frosty relationship. So they might be willing to cut Johnson some slack as he throws the DUP under a bus (buses continue to play a big walk-on part in this whole drama). Johnson, by contrast, probably couldn’t care less what the future EU relationship ends up looking like.
Details may yet mean that current hopes for a deal will be dashed. But in the event of a deal, with or without an extension, attention will quickly turn to the transition period.
If Britain leaves on October 31st, that transition will last for 14 months. The EU-UK free trade deal is supposed to be negotiated during that time. Good luck with that.
Anyone who thinks a deal in the next few days will bring all this sorry business to an end is going to be sorely disappointed.