Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 18 October 2019

Is this good for Johnson, whether he wins or loses?

I have no idea whether Johnson will get his deal through on Saturday. As the broadcast media is obsessed by headcounts I will leave it to them. What I will say is that the idea that MPs will be taking a decision that has a profound influence on everyone in this country (in which will do such serious economic and political damage to the UK) on the basis of only two days of scrutiny with no assessment of its impact is just absurd, and typifies everything that is wrong about Brexit.

Who knows why Johnson changed strategy during or before his meeting with Varadkar. Maybe it was fears about security in Northern Ireland after No Deal created a border. Maybe he always had the idea in mind of going back to the EU’s original plan to keep Northern Ireland in the Customs Union and Single Market. It seemed to be the obvious thing for Johnson to try, as I suggested in August. Maybe the suggestion came from Varadkar. But whatever it was, there is a huge irony in where we are now.

What Johnson has agreed to is basically the first deal the EU proposed. It is a deal that May said no UK Prime Minister could accept, and the deal condemned by Johnson a year ago. The backstop has now become the deal. No wonder Varadkar looked so pleased after his meeting with Johnson, and no wonder European leaders look so pleased when the deal was finally agreed. Of course the EU could agree to something they had already proposed.

Why has the ERG apparently agreed to this, when they said they could not possibly support it first time round? Unfortunately (or perhaps not) I cannot put myself in ERG shoes and answer that question. What does annoy me is when the BBC’s political editor praises Johnson for having got the EU to drop the backstop, when in reality he has forgotten all ideas of alternative arrangements and made the original backstop the deal. Indeed the BBC in lavishing praise on Johnson, and failing to point out his earlier rejection of almost the same proposal, is doing its bit to get the deal over the line on Saturday.

If Johnson fails on Saturday to get parliament to vote for his deal, he has got himself a very strong Brexit line to take into any General Election. Winning a General Election has always been Johnson’s prime goal. Before that walk among the trees with Leo Varadkar, Johnson’s election strategy had been to formally argue that he could get a deal (to keep Tory MPs on board), but hope a sufficient number of Farage inclined Leavers took this to mean he would leave with no deal.

Johnson's new deal is also a better election strategy. Few English voters care about Northern Ireland, regrettable though that is, and so they will feel no qualms about giving Johnson enough MPs to drop his DUP alliance. For Leavers, the idea of voting to get Brexit over the line will seem irresistible. Of course if Johnson does win and gets his deal through parliament Brexit will continue in the form of negotiating an FTA, but we will be out of the EU.

The risk that Johnson always had in actually finalising but not passing a deal is that Farage would convince enough voters his deal was not true Brexit and that they should therefore vote for him. However I suspect that will be very hard for Farage with this deal. What part of the deal can Farage use to convince Leavers it is not a real Brexit? As I noted above, talking about the EU annexing Northern Ireland is unlikely to impress most voters.

Does it make sense to hold a People’s Vote (PV) on Johnson’s deal vs Remain if Parliament can find the votes for that? Here the calculation is very simple. Unlike the PVs I talked about in earlier posts, which would have almost certainly led to a Johnson boycott, it will be much harder for him to boycott a vote on his own deal. However much he says that a second vote betrays the first, running away from a vote on your own deal just looks bad. So I suspect we would get a proper PV, even if Johnson resists it in many ways beforehand.

The main reason he will eventually agree to it is that he thinks he can win. He may well be right. Remainers should not put too much faith in the small majority in polls of Leave versus Remain. It could well be 2016 all over again.

Alasdair Smith goes through some of the lines that Johnson/Cummings will take. It is classic disinformation of the type that some of us can still remember from 2016. They will claim that the deal ensures that Britain will be free of EU laws and regulations, and now free to strike trade deals of our own. In reality this is true only if the UK does not sign a trade deal with the EU. Trade deals are all about harmonisation of tariffs and regulations, and there is no way the EU is going to harmonise on anything other than their own.

Nor is abandoning a level playing field made real until it comes to negotiating a FTA with the EU. The EU will certainly insist on one if there is tariff alignment, because tariffs are the EUs weapon against a country undercutting the EU by lowering standards. The reality has always been that complete sovereignty, in the sense of having nothing to do with EU laws and regulations, is only true if the UK is prepared to avoid an EU FTA completely. Indeed that possibility remains open to Johnson with this deal. If he does not get any FTA's this deal will morph into No Deal, except that Northern Ireland is safe.  

The alternative to a PV is an election, which parliament is sure to get. If Labour forms a government after that election then it is almost certain Brexit is dead. The Tories will vote against a soft Brexit as not a ‘real’ Brexit, and Remainers will vote for Remain. So the critical variable is the probability of that election outcome. I suspect most people would put the probability of a PV win for Remain as higher than Labour winning the election, simply because in the latter the Remain vote is split by the Liberal Democrats.

If Johnson does get his deal through parliament, or wins a PV, he will enjoy at least a week of media adulation that will be unbearable for Remainers. I had wondered if there might be a sting in the tail for him. With Brexit out of the way, he will have lost his main weapon against his opponents in a General Election. He may suffer the fate of his idol Churchill, and (in leavers eyes) win the war only to lose the peace.

However I can think of countless reasons why winning on Saturday will hand Johnson the election on a plate. There is the adulation from Leavers and the media of course. Remainers will also not quickly forget, and they will be looking for someone to blame, and many will blame Corbyn. That feeling may be intensified if it turns out, as it may well do, that it was Labour MPs who were critical in getting Parliament to approve the deal on Saturady. In short, whether he wins or loses, Johnson is set pretty for the General Election.

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