On Sunday, Boris Johnson’s cabinet ministers were summoned to a conference call for an update on his Brexit strategy. The European Union had not yet indicated any shift in its position, he said, but that should in no way deter the government from its current course. He was confident, he told his cabinet, that if he stuck to his guns the EU would move eventually.
This, then, is the new government’s position. The prime minister told ministers that he does not think no deal is the most likely outcome — but if the government is not prepared for it, nothing will change.
Is he right? Will the EU blink first? Many in the EU are unwilling to give ground. They don’t think the United Kingdom can possibly get ready to leave the EU with no deal by October 31. The UK will back down at the last minute, they assume. And until recently, they had a point. A few weeks ago, Steve Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, lamented that the government’s no-deal preparations had slipped since the Brexit extension was agreed and that the UK was less prepared now than it had been for March 29. But the new prime minister is changing this: there are now daily no-deal prep meetings being chaired by Michael Gove and a new slimmed-down cabinet committee in charge of it. The UK will be considerably more ready for no deal on October 31 than it was on March 29, though there are some aspects that it is almost impossible to prepare for.
It will soon be clear to Jean-Claude Juncker and the other main players on the EU side that the government really is taking take no-deal planning seriously in a way that it never has before. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond. Gove is the most effective departmental minister the Tories have produced since Ken Clarke. In addition, the necessary funds for no deal will now be made available, promises Sajid Javid, the new chancellor. This is quite a change from Philip Hammond’s tenure at the Treasury when it queried ‘the business case’ for nearly all no-deal spending.
The cabinet secretary’s attitude to no-deal prep has also shifted. When Theresa May wanted the cabinet to agree to an extension request, a 14-page memo from Mark Sedwill leaked out. It warned that no deal would cause a recession worse than 2008’s and threaten the Union. Several ministers saw this document as an attempt to bounce them into backing an extension to Article 50. Now, though, Sedwill is working hand in glove with Johnson’s team to create new structures to handle no-deal planning.
There is an intensity to these preparations that was not there before. When Dominic Cummings met with special advisers at 6 p.m. last Friday, he apologized that the meeting was taking place at that time (many in Whitehall have become used to ‘working from home’ on a Friday or at least scooting off early). Cummings then offered to move the meetings to a Saturday or a Sunday if that was more convenient.
But even with the money and the planning in place, key figures in the EU still calculate that no deal just won’t happen, because of the parliamentary arithmetic. They reckon that the anti-no deal majority in the Commons will assert itself as it did before March 29, so there will be no need to compromise. On the UK side of the divide, Boris’s confidants admit that this is a problem. One argues that the EU will only begin to take the prime minister seriously if he can get through the parliamentary session at the start of September with his Brexit plan intact.
This is why Johnson’s core team are preparing for a full-scale parliamentary assault in this mini-session. What worries them is the number of potential Tory rebels who might vote with the opposition on Brexit: ‘There are some people who just don’t give a fuck any more, and that’s always dangerous,’ says one of those charged with handling parliament. I understand one of Downing Street’s tactics will be to show how extreme things will become if MPs try to tie the prime minister’s hands. If Dominic Grieve and co want to use ancient constitutional precedents, the executive will respond in kind.
If Johnson can get through that fortnight in September, the EU would have to take his no-deal threat seriously. The Commons would not return again until October and even if the government was defeated in a vote of no confidence at that point and a general election called, it wouldn’t be sufficient to stop Brexit. The view in No. 10 is that no deal is the legal default and so that would simply happen during the election campaign.
But even if Boris Johnson can get the EU to take the possibility of no deal seriously, it is not certain that it will choose to compromise to avoid it. There are those on the EU side who think that it would be foolhardy to offer Boris Johnson more than they did Theresa May. They fret that offering concessions to the UK now would encourage London to take the same robust approach to the trade talks and put the EU on the backfoot for those negotiations.
There is also a desire not to abandon Ireland or humiliate Leo Varadkar; to show that the EU really does stick by its smaller members. Set against this is the genuine concern about the rupture that a no-deal Brexit would cause. It is not principally the economics that worries senior figures in EU capitals, but the geopolitics. Both Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker have expressed concern that an acrimonious no deal could see the UK move away from the European position on a whole host of issues, including Iran and global trade. It is also worth noting that Boris Johnson keeps attacking the backstop for being ‘undemocratic’, suggesting that he might well be open to special arrangements for Northern Ireland if they were determined there rather than in Brussels.
Ministers are still adjusting to the new prime minister’s approach. Under May, cabinet meetings regularly overran and decided little. Boris Johnson was clearly pleased to bring the first cabinet meeting of his premiership to a close five minutes early. There is also a sense of showmanship that was lacking during May’s tenure. On Sunday’s call, Johnson relished using the word ‘stertorous’ to make a point which sent cabinet ministers rushing to their dictionaries.
When Boris Johnson was trying to secure the support of a member of May’s cabinet during the leadership contest, this minister kept pushing Boris on whether he could be a team player. Eventually Boris replied: ‘I might not be a team player. But I can be a team captain.’ The first week of his premiership suggests that he was right. He has acted with decisiveness and his government has a clarity about its aim that stands in stark contrast to the May ministry.
Is it now too late for this new, more decisive approach to make a difference? If this government can maintain its current pace and intensity, it will at least force the EU to decide whether it is prepared to compromise with Johnson to avoid no deal.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.