GLEN O’HARA says that as reality bites, the best Boris Johnson can expected by the end of the year is a ‘skinny deal’ from the EU.
Boris Johnson seems to dominate the political landscape, in complete triumph – for now. In just a few months, he has vanquished not just Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but his own internal opponents. Pro-European Conservatism and liberal Toryism are in eclipse, with all the Independent MPs who left Johnson’s party to stand against him having lost their seats.
Johnson has secured the largest Conservative majority since 1987. He has ‘delivered Brexit’. He is well on the way to rebuilding the Conservatives’ voter base, and has started to think about reconstructing the country’s basic infrastructure as well. What could possibly stop him?
Well, as it happens the answer is: quite a lot. It’s important not to replace the smirking cynicism of last autumn, with all its knowing “classic Dom” jibes about the prime minister’s right-hand man, Dominic Cummings, with the opposite reaction: of seeing the Boris and Dom team-up as some sort of all-seeing, all-knowing strategic powerhouse.
Back in October, they were cornered. The second Brexit deadline was about to pass. The Supreme Court had stepped in when they tried to remove parliament from the equation. The Brexit Party and the Lib Dems were eating into their voter base, making at least enough inroads to bring in a minority Labour government.
But then they got lucky – their opponents simply did not know what to do with Remain’s parliamentary majority. There were not the votes for a referendum. The opposition parties could not agree on how to remove Johnson from office. The impasse convinced the Lib Dems and the Scottish National Party to roll the dice and vote for an election. The trap was sprung. Johnson and Cummings got their ‘people versus Parliament’ election, with historic results.
The majority might now be as good as it gets, for they are now faced by a bulging inbox of paradoxes and contradictions that should terrify anyone with a little imagination. The first and number one problem is the hard graft of actual, rather than apparent, Brexit: how to get a trade deal by the end of the year.
Downing Street seems to have set its face against an extension, but any trade expert anywhere will tell you that a comprehensive deal on that timeframe seems impossible. Nor will Britain get that ‘Canada-style’ deal that Johnson talks about so much: the UK is so much closer than Canada, and so much more important a trade partner for the European Union, that level playing field regulations will be much fiercer if there is to be any sort of comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.
Hence Johnson’s new talk of an ‘Australia-type’ deal, a description that doesn’t really hold much water for anyone who really knows about trade. What he really means to do is to revive the British idea of a series of ‘mini-deals’ that allow Britain to trade on World Trade Organisation terms in some areas, but better ones where they can agree alignment.
The EU is unlikely to agree to this either. It will be wary of punching holes in its common external tariff and regulatory system in a relationship with the UK that simply cannot be monitored, and reluctant to set up yet another wearisome web of arrangements that have caused it so much boring difficulty in its bespoke arrangements with Switzerland.
Perhaps the best that the UK and EU can hope for on this basis is a so-called ‘skinny’ deal, that will construct a basic free trade skeleton by January and leave other, more controversial issues to negotiations in 2021 and 2022: hardly ‘getting Brexit done’.
That raises three unattractive possibilities: first, that the UK will be excluded from a whole host of programmes it might rather like to be part of, from Euratom and its supply of radioactive isotopes for medical purposes to the Erasmus study abroad programme for students.
There is, second, the danger that the ongoing uncertainty will continue to act as a drag on growth, as it clearly has done since the Brexit vote in 2016; and third, that the ‘skeleton’ will end up as the end-state.
There is always the suspicion that Johnson has opened up with a rhetorical broadside to cover the likelihood of later retreat, akin to the deal he did with Leo Varadkar back in October, but the prime minister now relies so much on the Euro-sceptics in his own ranks (and among his voters) that he might just mean it this time. That would see Britain pushed way outside the European economic arena, with substantial medium-term damage to growth.
Economic expansion looks likely to be anaemic in any case: last week the Bank of England cut growth forecasts to 0.8% in 2020 and 1.4% in 2021. Any further turbulence, or the realisation that only a mouse of a deal will follow Johnson’s roar, might cut that back further.
That matters a lot for a Conservative Party which has set its hat at improving the lives of the ‘left behind’ voters that have just elected Conservative MPs for the first time in a generation. Even after all these years of austerity, any new rounds of cuts to current spending might still have to be significant to meet chancellor Sajid Javid’s fiscal rules.
Ministers can talk all they like about the capital side of things – about fast rail to the north of England and within it, hospital upgrades, new train stations, runways and docks – but voters might look twice if tax credits are cut and councils clobbered, in order to pay for all the new shiny buildings.
Infrastructure can only do so much. Councils which have seen their budgets plunge are failing to provide even basic statutory services: further Treasury attacks will hardly make the buses run on time.
Johnson and Cummings actually face a sea of troubles. The country’s entire diplomatic and economic strategy since the 1960s was bound up with the European project which they have just blown up. Britain’s productivity performance is pathetic. The country is overdue a recession. Donald Trump’s obsession with strongarm tariffs is hurting the world economy. The population is ageing, and both main parties’ response is to cover their eyes about the cost. Scottish independence looks to be on a knife edge. More Brexit uncertainty is the last thing we need.
So Johnson looks like a winner – for now. But the Conservatives enjoyed up to double-digit leads in the opinion polls across the summer of 1992, after their surprise election victory in the April of that year. Then sterling’s ejection from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism destroyed their reputation for economic competence. They took a generation to recover.
In an uncertain world, and facing a volatile electorate, anything can happen. No resident of Number 10 can ever rest easy, and after the turmoil of the last four years this prime minister of all people should remember his own political mortality.
Glen O’Hara is professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University and author of a series of books, including The Paradoxes of Progress: Governing Post-War Britain, 1951-1973 and The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain. He is currently working on a history of the Blair government of 1997-2007