Andrew Grice / Jul 2019
When Theresa May announced her resignation, some at Westminster hoped the arrival of a new prime minister would finally resolve the Brexit impasse one way or the other.
But the Conservative Party leadership contest has arguably made a solution harder. While May’s successor will have a brief opportunity to reach what Whitehall and Brussels call the "small landing zone” of a revised deal, promises made during the election will make that task more perilous. “We have had an array of unicorns,” one UK minister admits.
They include claims that the backstop to prevent a hard Irish border could be replaced by “alternative arrangements” based on technological solutions. This view has been encouraged by both Boris Johnson, the clear front-runner, and his rival Jeremy Hunt, even though the EU insists such technology does not yet exist.
Their contest has made a no-deal exit more likely. They have told the 160,000 Conservative Party members (the 0.2 per cent of the population choosing the next prime minister) what they want to hear. Two-thirds of them are so desperate to leave the EU that they support a no-deal departure.
Johnson framed the contest by announcing he would take the UK out on 31 October “with or without a deal” (he has since added the words “come what may” and, rather ominously, “do or die”). His Cabinet would have to sign up to this policy before serving, forcing some senior Tories worried about no-deal to swallow their doubts in the hope of securing a ministerial post. Based on his experience as an EU-baiting Brussels correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in the early 1990s, Boris is convinced the EU27 would blink if the UK were serious about no-deal. He calculates that the EU would not want to be blamed for a disorderly exit or want to introduce checks on the Irish border. When confronted by EU leaders’ insistence that the withdrawal agreement will not be changed, Boris allies reply: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” They hope that Johnson’s good relationship with Donald Trump will concentrate EU minds. Given the global power struggle between America and China, the argument goes, the EU would be wise to hug the UK close after Brexit, and make concessions on the backstop.
Johnson insists there would be only “a million to one” chance of no-deal. Whitehall does not share his optimism. It will present the incoming prime minister with options including a much longer implementation period, with the “standstill” Boris wants on customs. He wants to resolve the Irish backstop issue during the transitional phase. But would Tory Eurosceptics and the Democratic Unionist Party the backstop remaining in the withdrawal agreement to get Brexit over the line? Brussels might be open to a longer transition, though Johnson’s threat to hold back some of the UK’s £39bn divorce payment would not win him friends there.
His timetable is remarkably tight. The European Council does not meet until 17-18 October, and pushing a revised deal through the Commons would take about six weeks. Johnson might disappoint some of his backers --either the hardline Eurosceptics who actively want to leave on World Trade Organisation terms or no-deal opponents who calculate that he would be more pragmatic in power.
I am watching the 16 hustings events at which Johnson and Hunt take questions from Tory members. The gap between them on Brexit has narrowed. Hunt reassures members there is “not much difference” between him and Boris on Brexit. If there were no prospect of a new EU agreement on 1 October, Hunt would leave on 31 October without a deal, but “with a heavy heart” because of the risks to business.
However, Hunt would delay the UK’s departure for days or weeks if a deal were close and he refuses to set a final deadline. Some supporters believe he would extend the Article 50 process for months if an agreement were possible. But the centre of gravity in the party means he is reluctant to say that. Unlike Johnson, Hunt would not consider suspending Parliament so it could not prevent a no-deal exit.
Hunt has fought a more aggressive campaign than Team Boris expected, but his label as a Remainer in the 2016 referendum has been a millstone round his neck. In some ways, he is being penalised for May’s failure. The party wants a true believer now. While Hunt is more popular than Johnson amongst the public, polls of Tory members give Boris a big lead. Many minds were already made up at the start of the contest; few appear to have been changed. Brussels should prepare for Boris.