Comment

Boris Johnson must decide how to spend his big blank cheque for Brexit

Joe Owen / Dec 2019

Photo: Shutterstock

 

Brexit has been stuck for a year. Last December, Parliament was presented with a withdrawal deal – and reacted with a combination of knife-edge and sledgehammer votes. Almost every way forward was ruled out.

But the general election result has broken the parliamentary stalemate. Johnson now has a control over the Commons. However, Brexit is not all about votes in Westminster.

A big majority does not change the huge choices the UK – and Boris Johnson – are still to make. It doesn’t turn the ‘biggest and most complex challenge in peacetime history’ into a gentle stroll. It makes life easier, but it certainly doesn’t make it easy.

Boris Johnson’s majority makes Parliament less of a rottweiler – more of a rubber stamp

The UK will leave the EU on 31 January. The withdrawal agreement bill will pass. But that isn’t the end of the parliamentary task on Brexit.

The government needs to pass bills in areas like immigration, agriculture, fisheries and trade. But bills on areas that proved controversial in the past are now likely to breeze through in comparison, and the uncomfortable amendments of last year will be stripped out when the legislation is re-introduced. And it is hard to see a Parliamentary for majority for many – or any – new amendments.

The prime minister will no longer be filled with dread at the prospect of the votes to approve negotiating mandates and the future relationship. Johnson can use Parliament as a tool to show progress and demonstrate support for his position on Brexit, rather than a fight for survival.

But Johnson won’t be only one looking to put his majority to use – so will the EU

A stronger position in Parliament doesn’t necessarily translate to the negotiating table. The EU will certainly see Johnson as a prime minister easier to do business with. He can guarantee the UK’s exit from the EU, who will also be confident that any future relationship is much less likely to get stuck in Westminster.

However, Johnson returns to 10 Downing Street as a prime minister who is capable of making concessions. When Johnson’s team were in Brussels in October, one of their only negotiating cards was ‘unless you offer concessions, the deal won’t pass’. But with a ‘stonking majority’, there’s more the prime minister can swallow. Areas like fishing rights and alignment on rules look less of a deal breaker, but only if the prime minister is prepared to sign up. The EU will be working out how to best make use of the Prime Ministers new found power over Parliament.

But before we get to the detailed negotiations in Brussels, Johnson needs to work out what he wants. One part of his party will hope this result is the beginning of a pivot to a softer Brexit. Another part of the party will see it as a ringing endorsement of a looser relationship with the EU. They can’t both be right. Johnson successfully worked out which way the wind was blowing in the parliamentary party after the 2016 referendum – but now he can make the weather, it is far from clear what he wants.

A big majority won’t make the practicalities of Brexit any easier – unless it’s used to buy time

Life outside the EU, on 1st February, will feel identical to the day before. At the ports, airports and all of the places where there have been warnings of disruption, life will continue as normal. The transition period gives the UK 11 months in which to negotiate and ratify the new deal. The transition is due to end on New Years Eve 2020, by which point if the UK has failed to agree a future relationship it will be facing another no deal exit.

The threat of no deal – even if it is a different type of no deal – will hang over next year. The government will need to spend next year preparing for that outcome, alongside making preparations for the prospect of a (yet to be agreed) deal. A majority of 80 MPs won’t make much difference to the practical job of preparing for change – rather it will be the almost 30,000 civil servants working on Brexit by March. The civil service will need to work flat out all year, again, to help prepare – but even with the extra time the task is unprecedented in scale and complexity.

Business also needs to prepare. Johnson will need to decide whether to tell industry early next year that, contrary to some of the messages of this election campaign, Brexit is not yet done and a December 2020 no deal is still a threat. If Johnson is serious about his December 2020 deadline then he will need to work out how to give business time to adapt to any deal. So perhaps, early next year, business might find its voice in the Brexit debate – particularly in asking for extra time – there is a deadline for June if the UK wants to extend the transition period.

Whether asking the EU for extra time, giving up fishing rights or opting for a Brexit that causes serious disruption in the UK – the prime minister faces some inescapable decisions that will use up his political capital.

Johnson has been given a very big, very blank cheque by the electorate for Brexit – one which he now needs to work out how to spend.

 

Joe Owen

Joe Owen

December 2019

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