Is Boris Johnson bluffing?

The PM is genuinely banking on last minute concessions from Europe. But he has made a grave miscalculation

August 14, 2019
Photo: Kirsty Wigglewsorth/PA Wire/PA Images
Photo: Kirsty Wigglewsorth/PA Wire/PA Images

If you are wondering whether you are living through some kind of fever dream this summer, you are not alone. The normally calm and quiet August days are currently filled with newspaper articles about voluntary airlifts to deliver food and medicine in less than 12 weeks’ time, while pundits are debating what happens if the prime minister loses the confidence of MPs but refuses to resign. Government-supporting newspapers are reporting this unique self-inflicted catastrophe not as a manifestation of collective breakdown but as a celebration of national sovereignty. What on earth is going on?

Consider the prime minister himself. The most important thing to remember about Boris Johnson is that he is exclusively devoted to his own advancement. The second most important thing is that while we may consider him solipsistic and zealously uninterested in anyone else’s viewpoint, he is not stupid.

It is safe to assume that Johnson knows what no deal involves. Does he worry about a future of insulin shortages, the pound collapsing and supermarkets running out of food? Perhaps that’s the wrong way to frame it. Does he think he will be blamed for the disaster and will it cost him support? This is the better question, and if he is not a fool then he will know that the answer must be yes. There are many people who currently feel they could never vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but would still prefer a Corbyn government to a Johnson one which imposed medicine shortages on the grounds of defending national sovereignty.

The PM must know that no deal will destroy his premiership just months after it has begun. In other words, he does not want no deal. Why, then, does he appear to be leading us inexorably towards it?

There is plenty of speculation about what Johnson is up to. Some theories are better than others, though we cannot be certain of any of them. It may be that not even he knows what he thinks he is doing. But let’s assume he is engineering some kind of strategy.

Theory one is that Johnson is indeed pursuing no deal, but thinks he will escape the blame. Does he think the public will instead hold the EU responsible for the catastrophe? It is just about credible that the PM believes he can charm (or gaslight) the British people with his alleged charisma, but he should have the political sense to know that voters do not reward their leaders for economic chaos. The EU would never again feature on a British ballot paper. Johnson would. We should discount this one.

Two, Johnson genuinely wants no deal, but thinks it won’t be as bad as people are saying. The problem here is that it doesn’t matter. In recent months the media has responded with hysteria to airport closures and a power cut. Magnify that by a hundred and for a period of weeks or months and you have some idea of the chaos about to hit. People will not be satisfied if the disruption is only severe as opposed to calamitous. Nobody voted for chaos and will not respond to it with stoicism, a stiff upper lip or “Blitz spirit.” Unless Johnson is stupid—which he isn’t—he will know this too.

“If sovereignty means anything, it means the right to self-destruct”
The third theory is that Johnson wants no deal, and will achieve it by proroguing parliament. The courts will almost certainly block such an outrage, but again, it is highly unlikely the PM would ever attempt it. He does not want to go down in history as the prime minister who dismantled Britain’s parliamentary democracy, and he knows that he will not be able to govern if he does.

Four, that like a child who is pushing every limit in the knowledge that his parents will save him from himself, Johnson expects and indeed wants parliament to stop him. Then he can push for a “people-versus-parliament” election. This may be credible but is still laughably short-sighted. Johnson would have to stand on a platform of delivering a no-deal Brexit and then, if victorious, he would have to deliver it—thus ending his premiership immediately.

Five, that Johnson is attempting to shift the Overton window to the worst-case scenario in order to normalise a slightly better one. The worst-case scenario could be the suspension of parliament, or any kind of no deal. Yet if the PM tries to adapt Theresa May’s deal, or delivers any kind of bad Brexit, he will be punished for it—and he knows it.

The sixth—and most likely—theory recalls the defining error of the Brexiters over the last four years. Namely, Johnson really believes the EU will blink. Faced with the catastrophe of no deal, Ireland will confront the worst-case scenario the backstop was designed to avoid, and submit to the demands of its former colonial oppressor.

This seam of foolishness has been knocked down time and again, but survives in the Brexiters’ imagination because it is all they have left. They have to believe that we are powerful, have leverage and can one day rise to become a “great” nation again, because the alternative is to accept that a small country like Ireland is now vastly more powerful than we are, and that we have trashed our influence and reputation for no reason at all.

The truth is that the EU is not afraid of the UK and not afraid of no deal. It is afraid only of its own political fragmentation. It is why the EU insisted on giving us no special favours. It is why they refused to grant us membership of the single market in goods alone despite the advantage this would have given their businesses. And it is why Brussels will never throw Ireland under the bus to stop no deal.

Nobody in the EU wants Britain to crash out. They have worked hard to avoid it. But if the UK government ditches the exit deal it agreed in order to throw itself off a cliff, Brussels will let it. After all, if sovereignty means anything, it means the right to self-destruct.

Many clever people don’t understand the EU and never have. Exceptionalist self-obsession has convinced the prime minister that ultimately others will bend to his position through charisma or sheer force of will.

The PM doesn’t want no deal, but believes the EU wants it less. He is bluffing. But he has miscalculated. And he will be stopped.