Boris Johnson’s return to work will bring more obsessing over Brexit, at a time when he should be fully focused on coronavirus.
As he savoured his moment of glory after his triumph in the polls in December followed by Britain leaving the EU Treaty in January, Boris Johnson thought he had Europe at his feet and rushed into law an act stipulating that the UK would terminate all negotiations by December 2021.
The argument of the Brexit excitables was that the US, China, India and white Commonwealth countries would be queuing up to conclude new trade deals with the UK to replace the current trade with Europe.
European nations would have to withdraw their fishing boats from waters they had fished in for decades, and European capitalism was so dependent on the City of London for finance or imports of BMWs and French wine into the UK there would be no problem in finishing off a quick deal.
As he returned from this Caribbean holiday paid for by one of those billionaires always crawling around prime ministers, the world of Brexit Britain was Boris Johnson’s oyster.
And then came a silent killer, a plague virus that turned the world upside down.
Well, most of the world. For Brexit world wherein dwell Johnson, and the true believing tribe of anti-Europeans like the two Dominics, Raab and Cummings, or the 1990 era Tory Europhobes like Priti Patel and Michael Gove, Brexit is far more important than a pesky virus from faraway China that in addition to killing thousands of us has pushed the UK and the world economy to the brink of a 1929 type depression.
Every major economy is looking after itself with President Trump the champion of beggar-my-neighbour economics and social distancing from every other country in the world.
Most political or legislative proposals are put on hold. President Macron has suspended his pension reform plan which gave rise to the Gilets Jaune protest movement. German politicians have given up their loud-mouthed search for a replacement for Angela Merkel as the German people appreciate her quiet but serious style as she leads the most effective campaign against C19 of any major western state.
But in Britain, nothing can stand in the way of the shining Brexit city on the hill which we are mean to worship under the high priests of the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and the Sun.
The negotiations that were meant to give effect to Brexit have come to a dead stop. To be sure there are Zoom exchanges but no-one can negotiate under the dark shadows of death and economic meltdown caused by the new plague.
The 25,000 civil servants working on Brexit have been transferred to other duties to deal with the response to Coronavirus. There has been a massive redeployment of government officials, not seen since World War 2, to deal with the disastrous shortage of medical equipment, surgical gowns, masks, ventilators and testing for the virus. The economic fall-out also requires 24/7 civil service work to help businesses stave off bankruptcy.
In short, there are neither the officials, the leadership, nor the preparations to conclude a EU-UK comprehensive deal this year and certainly not by June. The end of June is when the UK has to request an extension.
If the UK refuses to put Brexit on hold then the only realistic possibility is a crash out No Deal style Brexit which will double down on the Coronavirus damage to the economy.
Many Brexiteers were beginning to accept that negotiations could not finish this year let alone this summer. In an article in the Sunday Times Nick du Bois, a Tory MP 2010-2015, a keen supporter of Brexit and popular in the Conservative Party who served as Dominic Raab’s chief of staff at the Department of Exiting the European Union argued: ‘It would be incomprehensible to many members of the public if Johnson’s government devoted time and energy on these talks until the pandemic was under control.’
According to the ardently pro-Brexit Harry Cole, deputy political editor of the Mail on Sunday, who has very good links with hard Europhobe Tory MPs: ‘The immediate and lazy assumption that devout Brexiteers in the government are going to be automatically up in arms at a short extension, appears misguided from actually speaking to them. This has been a decades long fight. It’s over the line, UK is out. But like with the prospect of No Deal chaos, do they really want the end of the Great Project to be forever tainted?
‘Images of goods piled up at ports, which if they get this wrong while distracted is a real threat. With supply lines already pushed by panic buying and Britain already facing a very turbulent year, the argument that is not really the time to risk anything that could even slightly hamper the recovery efforts is growing at pace.’
Iain Martin, a pro-Brexit rightwing commentator for The Times, argued that ‘Brexiteer anxiety on extending transition seems odd.. Late 2020 and early 2021 are not going to be great for trade deals. It seems like a lunatic obsession right now.’
But with the return of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s key Brexit ideologue, to Downing Street, the tone has hardened sharply.
David Frost, the UK mid-rank diplomat, who Johnson believes is an expert on Brussels, tweeted on 16th April: ‘Transition end on 31 December this year. We will not ask to extend. If the EU ask we will say No.’
It is not usual for a civil servant to make such grandiose and highly political statements of government policy. The assumption is that the words were written for Frost by Dominic Cummings after clearance by two of the more ideological pro-Brexit ministers, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, the acting Prime Minister and Michael Gove, who is nominally the cabinet minister overseeing Brexit negotiations.
Opinions are divided about Frost’s statement. Firstly, it is a red herring to say the UK will refuse an EU request for an extension. In talks with Brussels it has been made clear to me and to anyone who bothers to listen that neither the Commission nor the EU27 will ask for an extension. ‘It is a UK decision and it would be quite wrong and even provocative for the Commission to be seen to be ordering about the UK government,’ a senior negotiator told me. In addition, the stipulation that all talks must end in 2020 is now written into UK law so only Johnson telling Tory MPs to vote new legislation can change that law.
Calls from well-meaning MEPs or Brussels think-tanks for an extension are misplaced, even counter-productive. Brussels should shut up and let Tories work their way out of their Brexit blind alley.
The Labour Party under its new and more effective post-Corbyn leadership will support continuing the talks into 2021 with the UK de facto staying in the EU. It would represents a major U-turn for Johnson but how many Tory MPs would make much a fuss given the utterly changed circumstances the UK, Europe and the world we are now living under.
Brendan Donnelly, a former Tory MEP, argue that the Conservative party ‘has metamorphosed from a traditional centre-right political grouping into a simple campaigning organisation for Brexit, to which all other governmental activities are subordinate. Conservative Brexiters are deeply conscious of how unexpectedly lucky they were to win the referendum in 2016. They see anything which postpones this as jeopardising their narrow and fragile victory.’
So does Johnson sees himself in the Brexit bunker and in a Götterdämmerung moment believes Coronavirus is a supreme test of his anti-European leadership and the nation will willingly follow him over the cliff edge of a No Deal Brexit into whatever follows as borders close and Britain lives without the thousands of lorries bringing in food, wine and other goods every day through Dover?
Two recent polls have said 67% and 64% approved asking for an extension.
It is Boris Johnson’s call. If he adds the economic damage of a hard-line Brexit to Coronavirus his current popularity ratings will not last. And the longer the UK stays connected to Europe, if not a full EU Treaty member, the more the possibilities emerge of a Tory Party returning to its history of a sequence of historic compromises with the core national interests of Britain.
In short, the Brexit saga is far from over. It is only just beginning.
• Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe who writes in European policy and politics. His latest book is Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain published by Ib Tauris, Bloomsbury.