Johnson’s transparent tactics succeed in shifting some ground
PM’s sincerity still in doubt as Brexit focus returns to London after European visits
Much of the British press was in little doubt about Boris Johnson’s first foray into Europe this week since becoming prime minister.
“A huge Brexit boost,” said the Sun. The Daily Mail saw signs that Johnson was “on the verge of a triumphant breakthrough”. The Daily Express said the prime minister could feel “rightly buoyant after winning over hardliner Macron in EU talks”. “Brexit victory salute!” it trumpeted.
The German government went to the trouble of publishing the transcript of the press conference between Angela Merkel and Johnson to demonstrate that Merkel had not, in fact, offered Johnson a 30-day deadline to come up with alternatives to the backstop.
Merkel and Macron accepted that if – a big 'if' – Johnson returns with a viable alternative to the backstop, then they will examine it
Nonetheless, although it was Johnson’s office which was telling people only a few weeks ago that he wouldn’t talk to the EU until they agreed to drop the backstop, the visits were a qualified success for him, for two reasons.
First, the EU now largely accepts that Johnson is serious about going through with a no-deal. The EU’s judgment about Theresa May was that she would not do a no-deal Brexit because of the damage it would do to her country.
Johnson, by contrast, seems immune to warnings about food shortages, transport chaos, economic disaster, political unrest, dissolution of the United Kingdom and so on.
That Johnson’s tactics on this are transparent has not, remarkably, diminished their effectiveness. Johnson has convinced people he is serious about no-deal by repeating the pledge to leave at every opportunity – on the basis that he has promised it so much, even he couldn’t refuse to go through with it. (He might be stopped by his own parliament from doing it. But that’s a different consideration.)
Senior French officials were reported this week to be planning for a no-deal as the central (ie most likely) scenario, itself evidence of growing desire in Paris that the British just get on with it and leave.
This desire may well prompt the French to actually help the British to leave by not shutting down Calais, according to one source familiar with planning in Paris. The Government here has not said publicly that it is planning for a no-deal as the likely outcome, but senior sources are clear that they are not far away from it.
The second reason Johnson can count this week as a qualified success is that – although EU and Irish officials are loath to admit it – he has shifted the ground a bit.
The EU’s approach is more subtle than Johnson’s, but no less effective for that
Previously, the EU position – as constantly enunciated by EU and Irish leaders – was that there could be absolutely no changes to the withdrawal agreement. Any scope for changes was only within the political declaration, the document that accompanies the withdrawal agreement and sets the direction for the negotiations to come on a future trade agreement.
However, both Merkel and Macron accepted that if – a big “if” everyone agrees – Johnson returns with a viable alternative to the backstop, then they will examine it. Everyone may think this unlikely, but it is a shift in the EU position nonetheless.
Of course by opening this door for Johnson, Merkel and Macron have put the obligation back on to the UK to come up with substantial and realistic proposals – and it is not clear whether the prime minister has the desire or the capacity to do that.
Statecraft always operates on a number of different levels simultaneously – and part of what everyone is at here is seeking to avoid the blame in the future for a no-deal Brexit. The EU’s approach is more subtle than Johnson’s, but no less effective for that.
Despite the earnest commitments exchanged in the Berlin and Paris meetings to work intensively over the coming weeks to avoid no-deal, senior sources in Dublin and Brussels – reflecting too what they have heard from Berlin and Paris via the EU’s information-sharing processes – say they will first await the outcome of inevitable challenges to Johnson’s no-deal policy in the House of Commons when it resumes in early September .
Officials, diplomats, ministers and advisers are divided about whether Johnson is serious or not about seeking to avoid a no-deal and how much of the current spate of diplomacy is genuine and how much actually directed at a UK audience in advance of an election.
But they can all see that he will face a challenge next month, the success of which will decide the future direction of Britain’s Brexit policy. For now, London remains the locus of the great game.