Boris Johnson’s tack to no deal is aimed at neutralising the threat from the Brexit Party and triggering a general election, argues Dimitri Zenghelis (LSE). Whatever the outcome of that election, he can avoid the terminal damage that a no-deal exit would inflict on his premiership.
Last month, I argued that as Prime Minister Boris Johnson would have no interest in a ‘no deal’ outcome, and would tack to the centre, disappointing many Eurosceptics on the right of his party in the process. I was wrong. But only for now.
Johnson’s strategy is becoming increasingly transparent. Far from tacking to the centre, he has boxed himself in to the most extreme form of Brexit. He has promised to leave the European Union on 31 October, “do or die” – closing off the option of another extension, while declaring himself unwilling to negotiate until the EU drop from the deal any version of the ”anti-democratic” Irish backstop (a device designed to keep the UK in the EU customs union by default, until a solution to the Irish border issue is found). These uncompromising positions are likely to prove unacceptable to the European Council, making the default a departure from the EU on 31 October without a deal. However, a no-deal outcome is likely to prove unacceptable to parliament, raising the prospects of an early general election in the autumn.
This seems to be exactly what Johnson is angling for. Claiming he has been blocked by both the EU and parliament from executing “the people’s will”, he will have neutered the electoral threat from the Brexit Party by fully taking on their agenda. Johnson has also begun his term with a series of high spending promises. Billions for the NHS and social care, new transport infrastructure projects, full fibre broadband and support for education. ”Boosterism” his team call it. Electioneering is how others see it.
Johnson the populist and his booster’s billions hope to take on the fragmented and weak opposition with his Churchillian talk of Britain’s “historic role… generous in temper and engaged with the world”. The “doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters” he promises “are going to lose their shirt”. It’s a long shot, but in view of the prevailing chaos, one can see why he might take it.
But what then? What happens after the autumn ballots have been cast? There seem to be three main possibilities. The first is that he cruises to victory with a landslide majority (or at least, a working majority). He would no longer rely on the DUP to pass key legislation and with a five-year term in the bag, the threat from the Brexit Party and his own party’s Eurosceptic European Reform Group (ERG) wing would be much diminished. In this scenario, he can pass an enhanced version of May’s deal (by putting lipstick on a pig, as some call it) and get on with reaping the rewards of the economic boost to confidence that follows any deal. Much of the right wing of his party will back him, not daring to bite the hand of a popular Tory PM (who’d have thought it?) who fed them their seats.
The second possibility is that the opposition get their act together, perhaps through tactical agreements to stand down candidates in key constituencies so as not to split the Remain vote, and as a result the Tories cannot form a majority government. Such an outcome would kill Brexiteer aspirations to no deal or even a hard Brexit.
The third outcome is that the electorate remains split and no party wins an outright majority. Johnson might again seek to rely on a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP in order to secure the keys to Number 10. This is where I return to the argument in my previous post. In such circumstances, Johnson is likely to tack to the centre.
Having failed to receive an electoral mandate for no deal, he will argue that the people have voted for compromise. This could take the form of a resuscitated version of May’s deal carried through a new parliament that wants to “get on with” Brexit. If the DUP or ERG threaten to vote against a deal, or push for a no confidence motion, Johnson will counter with the credible threat to put the vote to the people if he does not get his way “putting an end to this national pain once and for all”, potentially ending all hopes of Brexit altogether. The DUP and ERG won’t like it, but they will like this even less.
Such a strategy is not without its risks. Johnson might go down in history as the shortest-lived Prime Minister ever. But in these drab times, Johnson’s breezy gung-ho optimism has caught the public mood. It may win him votes but it will not survive contact with reality. The public will not be voting for recession, job losses, industrial closures, medicine rations and TV footage of the mass slaughter and burning of livestock, as would be expected in the event of no deal. This would be followed by endless negotiations with the EU from a position of much greater weakness. Johnson is no Eurosceptic ideologue, he is a populist: if he achieves a full five-year term as Prime Minister, why would he jeopardise it?
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.
As I argued in my comments to this article, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2019/07/31/is-boris-johnsons-brexit-posturing-just-a-power-play/ , it seems highly unlikely to me that Boris Johnson will of his own volition call a General Election before Brexit, because there isn’t much time and going to the country after having backtracked on his promise to exit on October 31st would be a disaster for the Conservative Party.
The article above raises another possibility, that Boris Johnson will be forced out by a no-confidence motion in time for a new government to postpone Brexit or pass the withdrawal agreement.
Here are some arguments about the timing, from my brief Google researches. Please someone correct me if I’m wrong. I’m sure I’m not the only one doing these calculations, probably nearly all MPs and most political journalists are.
Parliament is timetabled to come back on the 3rd September. Assume Jeremy Corbyn immediately tables a no-confidence motion. This will then be held on the 4th September. Now suppose all attempts to form an alternative government fail. Then 14 days later, on the 18th September, Boris Johnson has to go to the Queen. Critically he gets to choose the date.
What’s the earliest he can choose? The election period has to be at least 5 weeks. So he could, if he wanted, ask for the election to be held on the 23rd of October. However since it is the custom in the UK for elections to be held on a Thursday, it seems more likely he would pick the 24th October, just giving time for a new Prime Minister to be elected who can ask for another postponement. (And maybe even get one. It certainly is not guaranteed that Macron and the rest of the EU27 will play along.)
Basically, this route to a Brexit postponement requires the immediate cooperation of Jeremy Corbyn, enough rebel Conservative Remain MPs to outvote the rebel Labour Leave MPs who might choose to go ahead with no deal, and Boris Johnson. That’s all mathematically possible, but is it likely? In particular, i think it’s very hard to see how Boris Johnson would justify choosing an election day on the mathematically earliest date, to allow someone else to postpone Brexit. Wouldn’t this be a an absolute gift to the Brexit Party?
The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-general-election-snap-corbyn-brexit-vote-no-confidence-a9022336.html has an intriguing alternative suggestion, that the anti-No-Deal-Parties get together to nominate a temporary government which would postpone Brexit and then call a general election. (Or, rather, bring one about by deliberately losing a no-confidence motion.) But this would still depend on Jeremy Corbyn cooperating.
Would he? In the other thread it was said that Boris Johnson wants power. So, of course, does Jeremy Corbyn. But Labour is not doing well in the polls right now, and the Labour strategists will not be encouraged by the result in Brecon and Radnor. Wouldn’t it be much better for Labour’s chances in the next election to wait out the chaos of a no-deal Brexit, let the Conservatives own it, and have the election later when Boris Johnson has spent months or years in trench warfare with his party on a tiny majority?
These are excellent questions. Like you, I would welcome an attempt to set out an algorithm of options. My starting point is ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. I don’t buy the notion that we will stumble into ‘no deal’ on a technicality. If there is a will to postpone no deal, even at the eleventh hour, a way can be found. There is too much to lose and too many individuals would not want to be held responsible for ‘no deal’ on account of inaction. Corbyn is among these. If he fails to act when the moment arises, he will de facto jointly ‘own’ Johnson’s ‘no deal’ outcomes (either through design or perceived weakness and incompetence) and will be judged accordingly come any subsequent election.
As you note, one option is a temporary parliamentary coalition forming to prevent ‘no deal’ and then go to the country. But I wonder about the extent to which an election scheduled for after Oct 31st might also prevent ‘no deal’? Under such circumstances, the European Council might agree to roll over current tariff arrangements and standards (a de facto transition) pending a more positive approach by the new administration. Unlike some in the UK, we should remember that most EU politicians are not desperate to inflect pain on their own citizens just to make a point. The council has already indicated that it would be willing to consider another Article 50 extension for a UK election or referendum.
Macron may talk tough, but after the recent roasting by the gilet jaunes he would be loath to aggravate French farmers, industrialists and fishermen when there is no British government against who to take a tough stance. The EU can always change its minds at a time of its choosing once a new government is in place. With Britain out of the EU, the EU will hold even more of the cards. The Council might set a date for a new meeting a week or two after the election where they decide on their approach.
If this happens, Johnson would then have held true to his commitment to deliver Brexit in Oct 31, but will have been saved from ‘no deal’ by parliament and the EU. For these reasons, Johnson is calculating that both Corbyn and the EU would help save his bacon because they have little to gain from doing otherwise. In such circumstances, Johnsons’ hope is that the Brexit vote will reunite under him while the Remain vote stays split. Brecon and Radnorshire showed that the Brexit party still threatens to undermine Johnson’s share of the vote, which will only make him double down on his willingness to drive through ‘no deal’ before any election. With a little help from Labour and the EU, he can always change his mind after the election and reap the rewards from both delivering Brexit and restoring (it’s all relative!) business confidence.
@Dimitri: hats off, that’s an incredibly ingenious suggestion. I don’t know much about the technicalities of EU treaties but I assume that if all the EU27 + the UK agree, I suppose it could be made to work. My main doubts are whether Jeremy Corbyn is going to play along. Corbyn’s strategists will see arguments for and against forcing a no-confidence motion next month. I don’t know who will win.
Apologies for the double-posting, but I’ve spent the last hour thinking about this some more. It seems to me the main disadvantage of Dimitri’s suggestion, from Jeremy Corbyn’s point of view, is that it requires him to collaborate with almost everyone except Boris Johnson, and at least some of this collaboration is going to have to be visible. For example before he calls a no-confidence vote he will want to know he is likely to win it. That will mean he needs to know he can count on several Tory rebels supporting him. Those rebels will want to know the EU27 are going to take the Dmitri route of offering the UK a transition period with a chance to either rejoin the EU or pass the withdrawal agreement after a technical no-deal Brexit. The Tory Party and Brexit Party will probably want to portray this all as a Remainer establishment stich-up and I think Jeremy Corbyn will be very worried about this hurting him badly in all those Leave-supporting Labour constituencies. He will also be worried that in an early election many of the Remain part of the Labour party will be tempted to vote for a more consistently remain party, like the LibDems, Greens or SNP.
Of course there is Dmitri’s counter-argument that Jeremy Corbyn, by not calling a no-confidence vote, will be partially blamed for enabling a no-deal Brexit. Perhaps. But on the other hand the Brexit referendum was won by Vote Leave who are now in government, so I think if everything goes pear-shaped after a no-deal Brexit, the voters will know where to assign the blame. Anyway Jeremy Corbyn will be licking his lips at the thought of the parliamentary chaos Boris Johnson will have to face over the next few months with a majority of just 1. I’m sure he remembers 1996-7 and 1978-9, the parliamentary shenanigans that the government whips had to endure, and the changes of government that followed.
Let’s play a little game. I’ve made enough wrong predictions on this blog as it is, so I don’t want to make any more. Instead I will give a probability. I estimate the probability that Jeremy Corbyn calls a no-confidence vote before the 31st October as 15% (that’s about 5 to 1 against). Anyone else like to name their probabilities?
Incidentally I would put it at much less than 15% except that I think Jeremy Corbyn is, like Boris Johnson, a bit of a buccaneer, and might well went to go for a general election even when his advisors urge a more cautious approach.
By the way, Dimitri, thanks to engaging in the discussion. I appreciate it a lot when article authors do this.
Thanks – very helpful. Though perhaps doesn’t quite get into the detailed mechanics of whether/how an Art. 50 extension or similar arrangement will come about to avoid worst aspect of no deal, if (and how) an autumn election is called. But again, the working presumption must be ‘if there is a will, there will be a way’. Alias argues not enough key players actually do ‘will’ no deal to be avoided, hence there is a higher probability than Jon Worth gives that it gets through. I am not so sure.
@Dimitri: “Alias argues not enough key players actually do ‘will’ no deal to be avoided, hence there is a higher probability than Jon Worth gives that it gets through.” I think for me the critical person may well turn out to be Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn’s top priority is to avoid a no-deal Brexit but to bring about a socialist Labour government.
Let’s face it, if Jeremy Corbyn’s top priority had been to avoid a no-deal Brexit, he would have voted for the deal (if he wanted Brexit with a deal) or against Article 50 (if he wanted no Brexit). If you vote for article 50 and against the deal, you are in effect voting for no deal, since there is no fourth alternative.
@Alias I take your point. Though Corbyn can legitimately and consistently oppose, and vote against, both May’s deal and No Deal while holding out for a Labour deal. That’s the opposition’s prerogative. The question of what such a deal would look like is moot, it suffices merely that it requires a change of government. For Corbyn, the risks of being implicated in No Deal through inaction are at least as high as the risks of free-riding off Johnson’s subsequent pain.
@Dimitri: “Though Corbyn can legitimately and consistently oppose, and vote against, both May’s deal and No Deal while holding out for a Labour deal. That’s the opposition’s prerogative.” I don’t blame the Opposition for opposing. That’s their job. I don’t blame Jeremy Corbyn for wanting most of all a socialist Labour government, even at the cost of a No-Deal Brexit, because I think he genuinely believes a socialist Labour government is what the country needs.
“For Corbyn, the risks of being implicated in No Deal through inaction are at least as high as the risks of free-riding off Johnson’s subsequent pain.” I wrote a long screed explaining why I think you are wrong, then I realised I didn’t know and deleted it. On the 31st October I will happily pontificate about how I knew all along whether Jeremy Corbyn would/wouldn’t call for a no-confidence vote. You are brave enough to stick your neck out, I am a coward 🙂
I think there are a few issues missing from this discussion:-
1. On a No Confidence vote – whilst time is very short and parliamentary time even more so, what the conservatives have shown so far is that even after 117 of them voted personally against the prime minister in the 1922 committee confidence vote, and 118 of them voted against the core government policy of the Withdrawal Agreement in the Housing of Commons, all of them voted for confidence in the government within days. All of them. It seems perfectly reasonable that if there is any time those conservative MPs who could vote against the government in a confidence vote won’t do so, it’s in the first days and weeks of a new administration. A confidence motion in September/October has always seemed much much more likely.
2. On cooperation I think the issue is far more about other opposition parties declaring they will not cooperate with Corbyn’s Labour Party than labour hanging back from co-operating with others. Most notably, the Liberal Democrats, with a very recent history of being in coalition with the Conservatives, have made it clear that they will no co-operate with Labour in parliament but won’t rule out cooperating with the conservatives. A perfectly feasible outcome of a hung parliament, it seems to me, would be Johnson offering a Revoke Article 50 / Leave without a WA binary referendum and a handful of socially liberal tokens in return for five years of very conservative government, and that the Liberal Democrats would say yes.
3. May is described by the leave campaign as a retainer, but she came to power by acclaim within her party and could have dictated policy as she wished. She appointed leading leave campaigners to core positions and pursued the ‘cake and eat it’ narrative of the leave campaign. Johnson, on the other hand, has surrounded himself with the vote leave campaign team and is adamant that the UK are leaving come what may on 31st October. I think the idea that he really really doesn’t want to leave with no withdrawal agreement is a strange one in this current context.
In 3 – retainer /remainer. Usual slip-of-the fingers apologies
I quite like ‘retainer’. I agree, all the options are high risk. But even if Johnson really did want no deal (though I genuinely cannot see why he would, except as a means to electoral advantage), he would still want to implement it after an election in which he hopes to gain a solid majority, and not before. If he forces the UK to leave with no deal before an election, he may end up the shortest lived PM in history. It’s Jonson.This will weight on him.
I certainly would dream to agree with your scenarios but I simply can’t. I think the new cabinet will never govern as a centre-right cabinet not so much because their convictions tell them not to but more simply because they dont have the skills for such a thing. Governing in the centre requires attention to details and technical and legal understandings of issues and good manoeuvring skills. Bar maybe Michael Gove, none of this cabinet’s members has any drop of these. Any conciliatory policy moves will therefore be resisted because they will only lay these deficiencies to bare.
Your argument assumes that the Conservatives are still a governing party who respects conventions, value expertise and isn’t afraid of rational arguments. They aren’t anymore and if the leadership contests has shown anything is that all these three attributes have now gone. David Cumming’s view that the Government, even if it loose the Commons’ confidence, could run the clock and table general elections right after Brexit Day, is just an appetiser for what is waiting for us: a constitutional coup by an unelected cabinet.
There wont be any normalisation, move to the centre or reality checks because disruptions, acrimony and anger are the only things that can hide this cabinet’s incompetence and give them a chance to survive. Anything else will only expose their moral and technical unsuitability. They simply have no interest in contemplating any of them.
As a staunch republican it really hurts me to say but the only thing that can stop this madness aren’t the MPs, the Civil Service, Brussels or people on the street but the Queen by asking Johnson to go the minute he loses the confidence vote in September. If this doesn’t happen, we’re toasted!
Those wishing to scupper Johnson and his no deal rhetoric might do well to call his bluff rather than immediately calling a vote of no confidence.
There is a very high chance that Johnson does not actually want no deal, he just wants to make it look as though he does to spike the guns of Brexit Ltd. If the opposers of no deal (and Brexit itself) sit tight it may well be that Johnson starts to panic. Unless two thirds of the house vote for a general election there cannot be one under the fixed term parliaments act. Lets see who blinks first. The last thing Johnson wants is a disastrous no deal Brexit and no working majority in the HoC. A few months in to the horror would be the right time for the opposition to call a vote of no confidence, win it resoundingly and then with the nightmare of no deal Brexit a reality win a landslide victory over both Tories and Brexit Ltd. Next on the agenda reapply for EU membership.
If Boris wishes to Leave the EU, it wouldn’t be that difficult to goad Macron into vetoing an extension. Failing that of course, as a long as the UK is in the EU, there are 28 countries who could exercise a veto.
“The first is that he cruises to victory with a landslide majority (or at least, a working majority). He would no longer rely on the DUP to pass key legislation and with a five-year term in the bag, …..”
I don’t think you have thought this through. Under these circumstances, the EU can either start negotiating with the UK or they will have accept that the UK will veto everything for the next 5 years.
The UK divorce bill is predicated upon the commitments made to date. It would be quite reasonable for the UK to refuse to make an further commitments and to veto any proposal going forward. If Macron wishes to further his ‘European Project’ he will need to enable the UK to leave the EU.
Thanks for the interesting article – I agree with a lot of it, but not the title.
BoJo NEEDS no-deal, he doesn’t want a deal. It seems so obvious and so blatant I can’t believe more people aren’t shouting about it.
No deal is the only way to stop the Brexit Party & Lib Dems splitting Tory vote.
Bad deal or remain won’t kill either of them off.
Once we’re out with no deal – the Brexit party is dead he believes many people won’t see Corbyn as the man to lead the follow on negotiations – the Lib Dems will split the Labour vote far more than the Tory vote