Boris Johnson will not bend on Brexit (because he can afford to be wrong)

Chris Burdett |

Britain and the European Union entered a critical round of ‘intensified negotiations’ on June 29th. The UK’s lead negotiator, David Frost, is now in Brussels for face-to-face meetings – the first since mid-March. There is a heightened sense of urgency due to the timeline and differences between the two sides. Furthermore, the Johnson government recently indicated this will be the final round.

Shortened timeline

Officials agree that a deal must be struck by the end of October/early November if it is to be implemented before the transition period ends on December 31st, 2020. Two weeks ago, the Johnson government shut the door on an extension to the transition period despite pleas from the opposition, business leaders and even the EU. This is not surprising, however. Johnson maintained a consistent position against an extension since signing the withdrawal agreement last October. Britain will leave the EU on December 31st, with or without a deal.

(Note: The formal deadline for an extension lapsed on June 30th.)

Insurmountable differences

The prospect of crashing out is clearly a cause of trepidation, and the odds appear to be high that this will be the outcome. The Johnson government has been uncompromising across a few key issues. The recent rounds of negotiations, conducted remotely under the COVID-19 cloud, each ended in stalemate.

EU officials describe the Johnson government as ‘unrealistic’, while holding out hope that the UK will come around in time to secure an agreement. This hope may remain unrealized. Recently, the EU floated a concession on state aid, perhaps part of a broader strategy to bridge the chasm over a ‘level playing field’. David Frost shut it down in a series of tweets reminding his counterparts that ‘taking back control’ is the point of Brexit.

Will Boris Johnson bend?

The EU has made it clear that the UK cannot expect to win the day on its terms. The Johnson government must compromise across areas where, currently, they have dug in. This brings us to a vital question about the likelihood of a deal: will Johnson bend?

One way to approach this question is to consider whether Johnson is merely posturing. Are his red lines simply a means to test the EU’s commitment to its own position? This is, however, a curious approach. The tactic is better suited to negotiating from strength, which is just not the case for Britain. While the EU would certainly prefer a status quo arrangement, resetting the relationship to WTO-rules will be far less painful for the EU. Simply put: the EU is in a position of dominance due to its market power.

It is understandable to begin negotiations by advancing most-desired outcomes, even from a position of weakness. Sticking to these outcomes, however, when the other side refuses to give ground is a foolhardy strategy if the prime objective truly is a deal. Johnson has been unwavering in the face of pushback by the EU on his demands, which supports the view that Johnson is negotiating from principle. British sovereignty is more important than any deal.

Impact of domestic politics

This reveals a blind spot in any analysis that tries to make heads or tails of the ongoing negotiations by focusing solely on the EU-UK differential. One must account for Johnson’s domestic position, which is, by contrast, unassailable thanks to a convergence of two factors that have little to do with Brexit.

On the one hand, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 does not require the government to call a general election but once every five years. Though FTPA permits early elections, they are meant to be rare. A vote of no confidence would require significant defections among Conservative MPs. A snap election, needing a qualified majority, is ultimately at the government’s discretion. Thus, the general election on December 13th, 2019, enables Johnson to feasibly postpone accounting at the ballot box for his negotiating strategy until 2024.

On the other hand, Britain is a majoritarian system, which means that the government’s power over policy reflects its majority in parliament. As one’s majority increases, one’s sensitivity to the opposition decreases. Moreover, a sizeable majority not only ensures the successful passage of legislation, but it can conceivably encourage risk-taking that a narrow majority or even minority government would avoid. To see the truth in this, one need only compare the challenges with Brexit faced by the May and Johnson governments after the 2017 snap election with the easy passage of Johnson’s Brexit bill in the wake of the December ‘19 general election.

Currently, the Conservative majority in the House of Commons is 80 seats. It is difficult to imagine that Johnson would feel inhibited by his party’s position in Parliament. If anything, he is emboldened when facing down the EU in the ongoing negotiations.

FTPA and the Conservative majority effectively inoculate Johnson from the consequences of being ‘unrealistic’ and uncompromising. We must take his red lines seriously if principle truly guides his government’s position contra the EU. In the short term at least, he can afford to be wrong.