The UK’s new Prime Minister is not noted for his grasp of details or his long-term strategic planning, although his rise to power suggests that he does have strong political instincts. It now falls to Johnson to deliver what Theresa May failed to, while overcoming opposition from across Parliament. But does Johnson have a strategy for delivering Brexit?
During the Tory leadership race Johnson promised Brexit “do or die” by October 31st. It is worth noting that the phrase do or die is lifted from a poem about the Charge of the Light Brigade, a deadly and pointless military disaster inflicted by unqualified British aristocrats on their own common soldiers. Johnson doesn’t do irony by half. Another problem is that Tennyson’s original poem used the phrase “do AND die”, an ominous allusion if Johnson does succeed in pushing through a no deal Brexit.
Underneath the bombastic language though, the new government does seem serious about attempting to leave the European Union by the end of October, setting up a number of Parliamentary and judicial showdowns in the autumn when MPs return from their richly undeserved holidays. There are attempts by coalitions of MPs to legislate against no deal, while opposition parties are prepared to try and bring down the government. So, what are Johnson’s options for overcoming these challenges, and what might his current strategy be?
Withdrawal Agreement 4 – The Madman Strategy
Johnson’s primary critique against his predecessor´s handling of the Brexit negotiations is that she was weak, specifically that she failed to convince the EU that she might actually go through with a no deal exit. As such, May was always negotiating from a position of weakness, despite her repeated assertion that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
This falls back on a much-loved trope within modern conservative and right-wing politics. Trump claims that being tough is enough to win trade deals and that simply saying “radical Islam” is a viable tool in fighting terrorism, avoiding the messiness that comes with detail. Similarly, Johnson and his allies claim that self-belief, the Dunkirk spirit and a bit of British steel are all that are needed to force the EU into a humiliating climbdown.
Still, there is some method in this cliched madness. Johnson doesn’t necessarily need the EU to make large concessions. It might be enough for him to get some last minute, largely cosmetic changes into the withdrawal agreement. He could then attempt to push this through Parliament at the last minute, using the threat of an election or second referendum to keep the hardcore Brexiteers onside while using the threat of no deal to peel off some opposition MPs. Essentially, he would repackage May’s thrice-rejected deal using bluster and bravado to get it over the line. Some have called this “rolling something in glitter and hoping to get it over the line.” Others have called it “putting lipstick on a pig.”
This tactic could work but faces several challenges. Most significantly, it was essentially what May tried and failed to do. She was hamstrung by the hardcore wing of her own party, who wanted more than cosmetic changes to the deal. Specifically, they wanted rid of the backstop arrangements which aimed to prevent a hard border in Ireland. The EU have strongly asserted that they will not allow the backstop to be dropped, while the factions within the British Parliament have only hardened their positions. So ultimately, this attempt to get a deal over the line is unlikely to work out.
Genuine no deal
Assuming Johnson is serious about his “do or die” claim, and his Cabinet selections suggest he is, then he simply has to get to the 31st of October without an extension to send the UK crashing out. All else being equal, leaving is the default result. However, there roadblocks here as well. Firstly, MPs from across the House of Commons are preparing to advance legislation to prevent no deal, for example by demanding that an extension is sought by the government. However, with little time left before October 31st, rebel and opposition MPs would need to find a way of taking control of the legislative timetable before introducing the relevant legislation or amendments. This is not guaranteed, but it seems like the Speaker of the House would back such moves. However, even if time to debate an anti-no deal law was given there is no guarantee it would pass. It is also possible that the government could simply ignore or delay the law, attempting to drag the UK out of the EU. Some senior pro-Brexit figures have even suggested shutting down Parliament to circumvent political opposition, although this would be difficult to pull off and wildly controversial.
A general election
With the government majority dropping to 1 MP and the possibility of more by-elections and defections on the horizon, an election looks increasingly likely. However, the question is will the election happen before or after October 31st?
The timing may be taken out of Johnson’s hands by the opposition, who are likely to force a no confidence vote at the earliest opportunity. If that happens there will be attempts to cobble together a temporary Remain-alliance, with an election happening if that fails. However, Johnson may choose to call an election on his own terms. The logic behind calling it before or after the 31st are relatively similar. In both cases, they rely on the support of current Brexit party supporters, who are themselves mostly disaffected ex-Tories.
Calling it before the deadline would allow Johnson to claim that he had attempted to deliver no deal, but had been hamstrung by Parliament, the EU and traitors within his own party. His play to the Brexit party members would rely on convincing them of this narrative, and his sincerity. You might not have trusted Theresa May and the Tories, but if you lend me your vote we can get this over the line. While Johnson has a credibility problem, he may be able to use the threat of a second referendum to convince the pro-Brexit vote to swing behind him.
If the UK does leave on the 31st then an immediate election would also allow Johnson to make a play for Brexit party voters. Look, I delivered. Now give me the votes and the majority I need to get us a new trading relationship with the rest of the world. The logic of this is that with Brexit done all those voters would flock to the Conservative party which delivered on the referendum result. The risk, however, is that no deal will devolve into chaos, leaving the government to fight an election while medicine and food shortages become a reality. The risk of such disaster is a hotly debated topic, but it is certainly possible.
Either way, Johnson’s electoral strategy has to rest on winning back Brexit party supporters. Whichever one of the Remain-Leave camps is least divided will win the election, because of the UK´s first-past-the-post system. If Johnson can unite 35-40% of the population with the promise of a hard, no deal Brexit then he can win against the majority of the population who are against such an outcome. This is because the pro-Remain side is split between Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the Nationalist parties who, as the last couple of days have made evident, are in no hurry to work together. Jo Swinson will do anything to stop Brexit, but she won’t do that (work with Jeremy Corbyn). This is why we can expect Johnson’s position on Brexit to remain firm. Uniting the pro-Brexit section of the electorate at all costs is now his only viable path to remaining in government.
Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
About the Authors
Daniel Odin Shaw is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Glasgow, focusing primarily on non-state actors and conflict resolution as well as extremist political movements. He has been published in Ms. Magazine Online, The Monthly Review and Global Politics.co.uk. He tweets at @DanielOdinShaw.