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.
Dimitri Zenghelis is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE. Previously, he headed the Stern Review Team at the Office of Climate Change, London, and was a senior economist on the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Before working on climate change, Dimitri was Head of Economic Forecasting at HM Treasury.