Boris Johnson calls on Britain to prepare to become Australia. By that, he doesn’t mean we can expect to move to the Southern Hemisphere in time for a sunny Christmas and a grilled turkey on Bondi Beach. He means he’s threatening to make a Covid-covered winter even darker. When he talks about an Australian-style future for the UK, it’s an understatement for the utter failure of negotiations with the EU and Britain exiting the single market with no replacement trade deal at the end. of the year.
The most Brexity fanatics around the Prime Minister will be fully relaxed, delighted even if this is the result. A nightmare for many, it is a dream for them. They smack their lips at the thought of the toughest of the hard Brexits. As one senior curator puts it: Boris will have Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain in his ear as he says, let’s hold it to the EU and celebrate by sinking a group of French fishing boats on New Year’s Day. blow it all up with the Conservative Brextremist MPs in the Commons.
Fortunately for Britain, these are not the only voices on the ears of prime ministers. There are more rational people in government, people who live in the real world, rather than a fantasy-based universe, and they are increasingly terrified by the prospect of a crash at the end of the month. December. Those who are deeply concerned about this result include key players in the firm.
Colleagues of Michael Gove report that he is increasingly alarmed by Britain’s suffering. Beef and lamb producers would be subject to tariffs of 40% to 100%. 100, which would put a lot of them out of business. Automakers would face 10% export duties, making the viability of some of their factories highly questionable. As the minister responsible for no-deal contingency planning, Mr. Gove knows better than anyone what that would mean. Governments own reasonable worst case scenario suggests that up to 70% of trucks traveling to the EU may not be ready for further customs checks and that throughput crossing the Channel via Dover and Eurotunnel could be reduced by 80%. Huge waves of disruption would engulf vital trade in the middle of winter, a season when Britain is particularly dependent on food imports from the continent, delivered just in time.
I have been told that Mr Gove recently presented an official Treasury submission detailing the amount of extra money needed to try to mitigate the immediate impact of a collapsed Brexit. There would be many significant new expenses, from dealing with the colossal congestion on the roads leading to Channel ports to setting up emergency airlift to try and ensure that supplies of life-saving medicines can enter. in Great Britain. The sum requested by Mr. Gove is described by those who know the submission as an eye-catcher. The size of the note shocked the Treasury. The Chancellor, however, may be secretly pleased, may even have encouraged Mr Gove to give this warning about the punitive costs of a no-deal. Rishi Sunak was another Brexit enthusiast, but he’s increasingly worried about what a crash-out would do to an economy already ravaged by viruses. The Chancellor does not buy the argument, casually fed to some right-wing commentators by the reckless tendency in Number 10, that the consequences of a no-deal can somehow be hidden from the public by attributing the economic distress that results in epidemic. The worst of the impact of the coronavirus has fallen on national service sectors such as hospitality and leisure. A no-deal Brexit would inflict its harshest effects on different areas: financial services and exporters, such as the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. The double whammy of a crash and the coronavirus would hit both sides of the economy at once, with dire consequences for business activity and unemployment.
The Chancellor has other compelling reasons to fear a no-deal Brexit. He has already spent epic sums on projects to mitigate the economic fallout from the epidemic. It is under pressure to offer more financial assistance to people in the growing number of cities and counties where Covid restrictions are tightened and business activity suppressed in response to the second wave of infection. A collapse would add another ocean of red ink to a national debt that is already soaring. So the Chancellor is leading what a very knowledgeable source describes as a no-deal bunch of madness ministers.
In addition to the dire economic consequences, a collapse will amplify the forces that separate our stressed body politic. As I pointed out last week, the sense of national solidarity that accompanied the first wave is collapsing. The response to the crisis becomes fiercely recriminatory and resentful. Add a disaster Brexit to a terrible virus and we will find ourselves in an even more disunited kingdom and very likely on the road to its ultimate collapse. The most recent poll suggesting that there is record support in Scotland for independence, the boost that a collapsed Brexit would give the nationalist cause has many Conservatives fearful that it will spell the end of the UK. It’s another specter that haunts Mr Gove, himself a Scottish man.
Whether the calamity can be avoided will largely depend on the dominant aspect of Boris Johnson’s personality at the time of the final decision. There is a dimension of the Prime Minister who always wants a successful negotiation or at least something that he can disguise to his supporters as a victory. Someone who served in cabinet with Mr Johnson points out: If he doesn’t get some sort of deal, he will have failed and Boris doesn’t like to be seen as a failure. Sure, he would undoubtedly try to blame a failed negotiation on toughening up the treacherous mainlanders, but that would still leave him as the man who told voters last December that he could. absolutely guaranteed that we will get a deal and that it would be a fantastic free trade deal. Whatever energy he and parts of the right-wing media might devote to denigrating the EU, he still has to answer his constituents as to why the supposedly baked-on deal was burned to the ground. I agree with those who suggest that it is probably politically easier for him to sell a deal as a grand triumph (even if it isn’t) than to try to explain why he isn’t. did not realize one.
This leads many to believe that the platform attacking the EU is bluffing for the compromise which really wants an agreement. Despite all his demands for a fundamental change in approach to the EU and all the bluster that a crash-out can be a good result, he has yet to put his foot on the table. Nothing said so far means the prospects for a deal are definitely dead.
Yet the chances of a disastrous outcome certainly increase. Imagine with optimism that the two sides can bridge the differences in positions on regulatory standards, state aid, fisheries and a dispute settlement mechanism. Any deal must be turned into a legal text and then approved by all EU leaders and the European Parliament. Most savvy observers believe there is at most a month to come to an agreement. I thought it was 60/40 that a deal would be made. I am now 55/45, says a senior official with many years of experience in negotiations with the EU. It is only when leaders speak that things really happen because only they have the power to make the big compromises. The problem is, there is now so little time left for all of the choreography to take place and all the details to be agreed upon.
Tom Bowers’ new bio reminds us that the Prime Minister is a chaotic personality who doesn’t meet deadlines and a compulsively savage gambler who has often made the deliberate choice to dance with danger. he once said: There comes a time when you have to put the dynamite under your own streetcar rails yourself. See what’s going on.
Even if we assume that his latest threats to blow up negotiations with the EU are just a tightrope, they are still extremely perilous. The problem with the tightrope is that sometimes, whether you really plan to do it or not, you end up tipping over the edge. It is a dance with danger on the edge of an abyss. It is a game only a very confident Prime Minister should play. And that we know Boris Johnson is not.
Andrew Rawnsley is the Observer’s chief political commentator