Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…probably

7 August 2019

DRD Consulting Partners, Duncan Fulton and Tamlin Vickers, share thoughts from either end of the Euro Tunnel

Dam and blaster: Boris 14 days in

Duncan Fulton in London

Gordon Brown had foot and mouth, Boris has Whaley Bridge Dam. A pocket crisis to lard one’s credentials, and in the latter’s case, providing a visual metaphor that rather sums up his first two weeks at the helm: high pressure, high risk, currently holding but could yet go spectacularly wrong.

1 day in and it hasn’t been dull.  For many Westminster watchers Boris’ sweeping reshuffle was as unexpected as it was brutal.

Reshuffles can be the most finely balanced games of political Jenga. Or they can be like this. Whether in personnel, policy or politics this isn’t shaping up to be a government of nuance or shade.

Week one A.D (After DUDE) was quite the statement of intent. May’s government was badly hamstrung by the collapse in Cabinet collective responsibility, the leaking and the disputes. Boris has acted swiftly to try and avoid a similar fate by packing his Cabinet with Brexit ‘believers’ (arguably Nicky Morgan and Amber Rudd aside), committed to leaving on 31st October “no matter what”. Likewise, Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill is now reportedly “on board”.  How long that discipline holds will be the first test of his strength.

His first speech on the steps of No10 came under fire for failing to offer a broad or coherent political vision. But he doesn’t need to. This will be a government that operates like a campaign, following the ‘Vote Leave’ data-driven template masterminded by chief political adviser Dominic Cummings. Very simple messages delivered direct to the people: targeted and totemic policies; appeals to the heart over the head.

And Boris has been on the road selling that story, trying to instil a sense of urgent optimism. He can connect with the public – across the political and demographic spectrum – in a way his predecessor singularly could not. Nor will he be tethered to Westminster: the lobby and Parliament are not his audience. He’s already toured the UK’s “awesome foursome”, and tellingly chose to make his first visit to Manchester. That said, there’s no denying his first outing at the dispatch box as PM was a true barnstormer, the likes of which we’ve not really seen since the days of the contempt fuelled Brown-Cameron exchanges.

Week two has seen new funding for the NHS, targeted, it seems, less by medical necessity than by voter intention. The Government is at pains to say that it isn’t preparing for a General Election. They would say that, wouldn’t they? But with or (particularly) without a deal it seems unavoidable that a GE will have to be called this year or early next. At first blush, the nascent programme for government is looking a lot like an election strategy. Nick Boles MP put it best on Twitter: “reunite the Leave vote, see off the Brexit Party and win an election against a Remain vote divided between Labour, the LibDems and the SNP//Plaid Cymru/Greens. If Labour MPs don’t get rid of Corbyn, it will probably work”.

It is the prospect of a General Election – or more accurately it’s the prospect of winning – he hopes will give him leverage over the EU and Parliament. Boris will know that he needs to mobilise public opinion behind the urgent need to leave, at the same time ramping up preparations for and the prospect of No Deal (see big drop in GBP). The EU didn’t believe that Theresa May was ever serious about a No Deal Brexit, and they are gambling now that Parliament will intervene to thwart one. Meanwhile, Boris is refusing to engage in talks with the EU unless the Withdrawal Agreement is opened up. So, it’s a three-way standoff in which the EU can be blamed for No Deal if they refuse to budge, or Parliament can be blamed for thwarting the will of the people if they vote against any deal if they do.

In that first speech outside No10 he argued that “in the end Brexit was a fundamental decision by the British people that they wanted their laws made by people that they can elect and they can remove from office”. I don’t think he just meant that as a critique of the unelected European Commission, but as a warning to this Parliament of the consequences of thwarting Brexit.

If this assessment is right, we risk having a government talking past Parliament, asking the people to challenge its legitimacy. Whether or not this marks a big stride toward national populism (as many fear)- or is a very high-risk attempt to break the political deadlock and deliver on the referendum result, quite a bit has changed. At the time of writing, the dam is still holding – just.

Checking- out? Mais non!

Tamlin Vickers in Brussels

As Boris Johnson took office last month, the European quarter in Brussels was emptying out. That’s not to say everyone had checked out for the summer. Key players involved in Brexit discussions were following events in London closely. The formal reaction to Boris Johnson’s appointment was worded diplomatically – Michel Barnier, for example, declared he was ‘looking forward to working constructively with [Johnson] and hearing what he wants from Brexit’. In reality, however, there was dismay at the number of hard-Brexiters appointed to senior government positions. Sentiment on Brexit has fallen to new lows.

Leading European officials are thought to view Boris Johnson in a less than favourable light. However, most EU officials and leaders recognise you cannot choose your negotiating partners. The EU has had to come to terms with Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, after all, so whatever EU leaders think of Johnson personally, they will give him a fair hearing. There is a reluctance to give him concessions that were not given to his predecessor, but there is also an acknowledgement that the Withdrawal Agreement does not have UK parliamentary backing in its current form. For all the European statements about the UK being worse-off in a no-deal scenario, there is a strong preference for a negotiated solution. The frustration is that because of UK parliamentary arithmetic, it is impossible to know what changes would actually get a legislative majority at Westminster.

To secure any kind of changes the Johnson administration will need to demonstrate that these changes would receive parliamentary backing. The EU’s caution is justified: many in Brussels felt let down by May’s inability to get the Withdrawal Agreement through parliament. Assuming Johnson’s government can satisfy its EU interlocutors on the parliamentary approval question, what type of changes might be possible? The EU has repeatedly said that the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation. It is true that the EU wants to show solidarity to Ireland; it is also true that the EU (and Ireland) is keen to avoid a no-deal.

The following changes might therefore be considered: First, the EU has indicated that it would be open to a Northern Ireland-only backstop, which was in fact the original arrangement before the UK insisted the backstop was made UK-wide. Secondly, the EU might consider a longer transition period, to maximise the chance that a final trade deal is negotiated without the backstop coming into effect. Thirdly, there is likely a willingness to consider some kind of phased timetable for the backstop, contingent on the technology and operating systems being practicable. The problem is that the EU cannot be sure that any of these changes would be acceptable to the DUP and/or harder-line Brexiters in government. More substantial changes would have to be backed by the Irish government. Currently this does not seem likely to happen, not least because Leo Varadkar would stand to lose out politically at home if he were seen to back down.

As for European views on a further extension beyond 31 October, France’s hard-line position is thought to be increasingly persuasive among member states. This has been helped by the domestic political troubles in other key member states, particularly Germany, which was a pivotal voice in the decision to extend beyond 31 March. Spain and Italy are experiencing domestic problems of their own, which leaves Emmanuel Macron’s France in a relatively stronger position as the new deadline approaches. This shift in dynamic, combined with Boris Johnson’s rhetoric about needing to get Brexit done by 31 October, suggests that a further extension, which until recently had been widely taken as a given in Brussels, is now seen as increasingly unlikely. A turbulent autumn awaits.