With just over three weeks to go until the 31st October Brexit deadline, Boris Johnson’s short premiership is entering a decisive, make or break phase.
So it was not surprising to find party activists at last week’s Conservative conference in sanguine mood. They were certainly conscious that delivering Brexit on time would be a possibly insurmountable challenge, as well as of the risks that leaving without a deal might entail for the country and their own electoral prospects.
But the Tories I spoke to in Manchester also seemed largely resolute in their support for their Prime Minister. They were pleased to finally have a leader they regard as a real conservative and who makes them feel good again about their politics. Interestingly, few seemed concerned by the missteps and controversies that have accompanied Mr Johnson’s tenure in Downing Street so far. I even overheard a group of female councillors dismissing the questions that have been raised about Mr Johnson’s relationship with the American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri as a media stitch-up.
The final Brexit gamble
It was against this backdrop that the Prime Minister in recent days has finally revealed his proposals to resolve the Brexit impasse. Under his plan the hated Northern Ireland backstop would be ditched and replaced by the whole of the UK leaving the European Union’s customs union. Northern Ireland would continue to apply EU legislation for agricultural and other products, subject to the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly every four years. To avoid a hard border in Ireland, customs checks between the UK and EU would be “decentralised”, with paperwork submitted electronically and only “a very small number” of physical checks.
In his keynote speech, the Prime Minister described the dispute over the backstop, which has blocked British politics for the best part of a year and ended the career of his predecessor, as “essentially a technical discussion [over] the exact nature of future customs checks”. The reaction of European leaders has been cool, to say the least. With Downing Street sources suggesting the UK is preparing for a breakdown in talks later this week, Johnson’s proposals appear less a serious bid to secure a Brexit deal, and more an attempt to pin a no-deal outcome on the intransigence of European leaders. In any case we’ll know by the end of this week if Johnson will be forced to ask for an extension to the 31st October deadline, as required by the so-called Benn Act which was passed by MPs opposed to no-deal last month.
The passing of this Act was the most serious setback Johnson has suffered since entering office, a self-inflicted wound which significantly constrained his already limited room for manoeuvre. Ironically, his attempt to prevent MPs from blocking a no-deal Brexit led to precisely the opposite outcome and weakened his position with European leaders. They now feel little incentive to compromise, believing that the widely-anticipated general election may yet result in a new Government in London and either a softer Brexit, or none at all.
Tactical missteps, strategic victories?
But while many of Johnson’s tactics for handling the Brexit negotiations and securing the election he so desires have been inept, EU leaders’ hopes may be misplaced as several key planks of the Prime Minister’s domestic political strategy appear to be in place.
Since entering office Johnson has relentlessly campaigned as though the election were already underway, making repeated promises to “get Brexit done” by October 31st and invest in the public’s priorities of better schools and hospitals, and more police. And although the Supreme Court’s ruling that the prorogation of Parliament was unlawful was undoubtedly a moral blow, it arguably plays in Johnson’s favour as it supports his preferred framing of the coming ballot as a ‘people vs. the elite’ election.
In this narrative, Boris Johnson is the only politician standing up for the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU in 2016. Even the inability to Brexit on October 31st because of the Benn Act is not Johnson’s fault, although his team are looking for elaborate ways to avoid Johnson having to personally request an extension, to preserve his leave credentials and blunt the electoral threat of the Brexit Party.
Crucially, Mr Johnson has also forced the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the only plausible alternative Prime Minister, to end his party’s strategic ambiguity on Brexit. Labour now openly supports a second referendum, and will offer voters the option to revoke Brexit. But in contrast to the clear positions of the Conservatives (leave), and the Liberal Democrats (cancel Brexit), Labour will still enter the election without saying which Brexit option it prefers.
With polling evidence showing Boris Johnson to be well ahead of Jeremy Corbyn in the crucial leader favourability ratings, Conservative party strategists will feel their chances of success in a late November or early December general election will be good, whatever happens on Brexit by the end of this month.
The stakes are undoubtedly high but – from Boris Johnson’s perspective, at least – the gamble could yet pay off.