Pat Leahy: Varadkar must prepare to deal with either Boris
It would be in Johnson’s interest to try to tweak the backstop, exit the EU and call an election
Which Boris Johnson will we get in August – the bullish Brexiteer or the pragmatic centrist? Photograph: Reuters/Simon Dawson
The business of government is winding down in advance of the summer break, the final meeting before the traditional Cabinet recess for August due to take place in Donegal next Thursday.
When it returns everything will be overshadowed by Brexit, which will enter a new and critical phase once Boris Johnson (barring a political earthquake) takes over as prime minister next week.
“The Ireland of September will be different to the Ireland of July,” says one Cabinet Minister, somewhat fearfully.
Elsewhere in the paper the question of which Boris we will get – the bullish Brexiteer or the pragmatic centrist – is aired. But whichever Boris presents himself in Downing Street, the Irish Government will have to figure out in advance what it wants to do next.
In the new science of sports punditry the professors often refer to the need for teams to “control the controllables” – to focus on what they can do, rather than what the opposition does. Sound advice for Leo “Why isn’t he called Murphy” Varadkar. Boris will do what Boris will do. The question for Varadkar is how prepared he is, and what he does in response. That will require clear thinking, hard choices and nerves of steel.
First, what if it’s big bad Boris the bullish Brexiteer?
That will probably mean we are on course for a no-deal Brexit in October. The EU and the Irish Government have made it pretty clear that they won’t buckle on the backstop. The Brexiteer expectation that the German auto industry would lean on the German government, which would lean on the EU, which would lean on Ireland, has proved completely empty.
It rests on the assumption that Germany cares more about selling cars than anything else. This is just wrong – Berlin cares more about the EU than VW. The Germans and the rest of the EU would like the UK to leave with an agreement but they won’t tear up their own rules and abandon a member state to achieve one.
As Denis Staunton reported this week, there has apparently been an outburst of optimism in Brexiteer circles that Varadkar and the Government might surrender the backstop once they see Boris is serious. It is not clear what this is based on apart from the all-too-frequent misreading of Irish politics by Brexiteers.
The belief, for example, that Varadkar was running a tough line on the backstop because he was afraid of electoral gains by Sinn Féin is not an analysis that has aged well, yet it was widely believed in Tory circles.
But if the Brexiteers have misjudged Ireland and the EU, then Ireland and the EU should be careful not to repeat the same mistake.
On a BBC Panorama programme on Thursday night which laid out the full, sorry tale of strategic confusion, bad information and poor judgment that has characterised the British management of Brexit, European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans advised: “If you want to be successful in a negotiation, you need to know the other side’s position better than your own.” Good advice for both sides.
The view in Dublin is two-fold – that Boris may well be bluffing on no-deal or that even if he is serious parliament would prevent it. Caution would be wise on both of those judgments.
Varadkar and his EU colleagues correctly assessed that Theresa May would not proceed with no-deal – I am not sure that the same judgment should be so readily applied to Boris, apparently untethered as he is to May’s overriding sense of the national interest.
And while it is true that Thursday’s vote in the House of Commons suggests a clear majority against no-deal and a willingness among Tories to rebel on the issue, it is by no means certain that the parliament could prevent a no-deal.
Even if it can the Irish Government can hardly depend on the unpredictable outcome of the full-on constitutional crisis this course would entail. That means preparations for the economic consequences of no-deal disruption – up to and including a massive hit on the public finances next year – will have to intensify.
The interim plan – stick to the existing budgetary plans and borrow to meet the costs of Brexit – is only feasible in the short-term. If Brexit happens spending will be cut and taxes will probably rise.
Of course, we may get the other Boris – pragmatic, politic, in search of a deal. This would be the Boris that looks for a tweak – not demands a wholesale deletion – of the backstop in order to pass the withdrawal treaty and exit the EU in October, thus clearing the way for a general election he would almost certainly win against Jeremy Corbyn.
This is so blindingly obviously in Boris’s interests that I find it hard to believe he would take an alternative approach, though I am prepared, as ever, to be confounded by abject stupidity.
Short version: if the level of political intelligence around Johnson improves – even a bit – he will realise that Varadkar will not move on the backstop in response to threats, but would be put in a more difficult position by a serious, well thought out and credible proposal that involves a good outcome for both sides.
There is no sign thus far that such an initiative is either likely or that Boris has the wit, subtlety or capacity to conceive it and then carry it off. Speaking to people in London, even his supporters doubt it.
But Varadkar will have to decide what to do if he does. By the end of August the Government’s playbook must be ready.
As the financial crisis – a comparable challenge – demonstrated a decade ago, these decisions are best not made on the hoof.