Brexit transition and the corona virus crisis – what hope reason will prevail? 19th April 2020

In late February the coronavirus was just beginning to affect Europe. I guess many of us thought it would come and go like many other viruses in recent history. It would probably have little impact on daily life and certainly not affect the Brexit negotiations. The big issue was the extent to which Boris Johnson was serious about no-deal if the EU didn’t back down and accept the UK government’s demands. Now most European countries and many others have shut down except for essentials. Movement of people is severely curtailed in a way that is unprecedented in modern history, including the 20th century world wars.

The government is overwhelmed and the Brexit negotiations have effectively been put on hold. They are nevertheless saying that the negotiations are continuing (some limited discussions are being conducted by video link), and are insisting they will not seek an extension to the 31st December 2020 deadline (on 16th April in a tweet David Frost, the UK’s lead negotiator, said that the UK government will not ask for an extension). Many commentators think this is crazy, but some accept it or seem resigned to it. Others think it’s likely that the government will ultimately back down and ask for an extension.

Clearly the big issue now for Brexit watchers is whether there will be an extension and when it will be announced (one of the best recent discussions of the negotiations and possible extension is by Tony Connelly, Europe Editor of RTE). In a separate blog I outline the negotiations and possible outcomes. They are summarised in the table below.

Brexit negotiations5f

A coronavirus extension?

Why are Johnson and the government adamantly against an extension when the world is experiencing a crisis unprecedented in modern times? Any kind of rationality points towards an extension. International trade and travel have been severely curtailed and the global economy is under extreme strain. A deep recession looks certain. Adding the significant disruption that would come from anything other than the best Brexit deal seems crazy. Negotiating a comprehensive trade agreement in a few months was always an extreme stretch (they normally take years).

But as those of us who have followed the Brexit saga closely know, there is little rationality in Brexit.

Hard Brexiters don’t want to concede anything to objective reality unless forced to (I argued in a blog that they were forced to concede to the Irish Sea border deal last October mainly because they were in danger of losing their Brexit). Making a concession would be tantamount to accepting that Brexit is not a good idea and could lead to further questioning of the project. After all, Brexit was supposed to be easy and Britain would be in a better position to face the problems of the world. If Britain backs off now in the face of the first big post Brexit crisis, would it not continue to back down after further problems until there’s little left of the project? (A similar argument is made by Brendan Donnelly of the Federal Trust, though he is not optimistic about the prospects of an extension.)

But no matter how determined anyone is, objective reality cannot be ignored indefinitely. And of course governments can and do compromise while presenting their action as an achievement (witness last October). So how might the government respond to the crisis? In a blog published on 29th March Prof Simon Usherwood considers four possible approaches.

First, hope the crisis is short-lived. If the crisis is beginning to peak, perhaps the lost negotiation time – which so far amounts to only a few weeks – can be made up, particularly in the summer months.

I think this can now be dismissed. The crisis will not be short-lived. It will continue to curtail the negotiations, which were already on a very tight schedule, for 2-3 months at least.

Second, get the timing of the announcement of an extension politically right. This would be in order to show they’ve done all they can but were forced into it by circumstances beyond their control.

Usherwood thinks that this is fairly likely and many commentators think the government ultimately will seek an extension. For example, on 24th March Peter Foster, then Europe Editor of the Telegraph and now at the FT, said ‘the UK will have no choice but to seek an extension’ and on 16th April he described how badly prepared the UK would be without one. On 15th April Joe Owen of the Institute for Government, said that a ‘transition extension is now looking inevitable’ (also see IfG report). On 16th April Lewis Goodall of BBC Newsnight, said we shouldn’t listen to the government statements rejecting an extension at the moment – it’s just ‘shadowboxing’. And in his latest Brexit blog Prof Chris Grey thinks on balance that pragmatism is likely to prevail.

The government may be waiting for the right moment so that it’s clear to their hard Brexit supporters that they didn’t cave in at the first hurdle and that they will not, with endless negotiations and extensions, end up with some indefinite ‘Brexit in Name Only’.

Third, cave in to the EU. Particularly on the Level Playing Field requirements, the role of the Court of Justice, and fishing rights. The challenge will be to present this as a triumph. This seems difficult, but last October’s cave-in to the EU was presented by many in the media as a great achievement.

Usherwood also thinks this is fairly likely, but a problem with this is that last October there was a real threat of losing their Brexit. This threat no longer exists. The real issue now is the potential economic and political damage from no-deal (or a very thin deal) and whether the government and Conservative MPs would really accept it. The government (and its supporting media) could possibly present a cave-in as a victory, but whether they would want it is a different matter.

Fourth, prepare for no deal and use the coronavirus crisis as a distraction. The challenge will be to conceal no-deal Brexit disruption behind that caused by the virus. In this scenario the government would really willing to go for no-deal unless the EU accepts most of its demands.

Although Usherwood thinks this is unlikely, it brings us to the nub of the matter. Are the government and Conservative Brexit supporters willing and determined to go for no-deal if the EU do not cave in and accept all their demands? In addition to the big economic hit from the corona crisis, would they be happy with big price rises of food and manufactured goods as a result of new import tariffs? (Or if they went for a WTO zero import tariff regime, would they be happy with the decimation of the UK’s food production industry, manufacturing and farming as a result of cheaper imports from outside the EU?). Would they accept the widespread shortages that could result from cross-border regulatory checks and the disruption of supply chains? Would they be relaxed about businesses losing big export markets in Europe as new regulatory barriers spring up? Perhaps they’ll dismiss all this as ‘project fear’. Or perhaps they really want to ‘fuck business’ as Johnson said not long before he became PM.

If they are really willing to accept all this, if they really think it’s exaggerated or can be concealed under the corona crisis, then they’ll want to get the no-deal disruption over as soon as possible in 2021-22, well before the election in 2024.

Ultras versus realists

So what will the government do? You don’t have to spend long on Twitter to find people who are sure they know the government’s mind. Some are certain the government wants no-deal, others that they’ll cave in at the last minute. The truth is that we don’t know. But there will surely be a fault line in the upper echelons of the Conservative party. ‘Ultras’ (such as Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg) would not cave in to the EU – they would rather accept no-deal. Perhaps some of them actually want no-deal.

‘Realists’ (Matt Hancock? Michael Gove? these are just guesses!) in contrast will be getting nervous about no-deal, particularly given the current crisis. They will be agonising about the damage of a no-deal Brexit and the politics of seeking an extension. They are more likely to accept the need for an extension or to seek a compromise deal.

The term ‘realist’ is relative of course. All Conservative MPs have signed up to Johnson’s hard line strategy of facing down the EU (their ‘opponents’). This involves doing everything to appear fully serious about walking away from the negotiations and leaving the transition period with no-deal (or, laughably, a deal ‘similar to Australia’s’ as the government has said) in the hope that the EU ‘blinks first’ and caves in. For now that means holding to the existing timetable and not seeking an extension. All that is plain to see.

At the centre of all this of course is Johnson. His swashbuckling ‘Boris’ persona, his ‘get Brexit done’ election victory, and his continuing refusal to consider an extension, all suggest he’s an ultra. But he is widely seen as not particularly ideological compared to other leading Conservatives. To him what matters above all is himself and his advancement. At the heart of Boris Johnson is nothing other than Boris Johnson.

I suspect therefore that he will be going through his own agonising. The ultra ‘Boris’ has been very successful so far. But political fortunes can turn very quickly, particularly if the huge damage done by the virus in Britain rebounds back on him as it may do. And if the damage is exacerbated by a no-deal Brexit there may be no return for him (remember how John Major never recovered from crashing out the ERM in Autumn 1992). Also perhaps after being in intensive care with the virus he has had a Damascene moment and will recognise the importance of public services, the contribution of immigrants and the need for international collaboration. Though I’m not holding my breath on this.

Undoubtedly some leading Conservative MPs and their Brexit supporters in the media and elsewhere will be agonising. The question is if, when, and how many of them come out publicly and start to make the case for an extension. Some are beginning to stir. For example on Twitter pro-Brexit commentator Isabel Oakeshotte said the virus changes everything and is ‘cool’ about an extension. Former Conservative MP and Brexit supporter Nick de Bois said that addressing the corona virus should take precedence over Brexit talks. And Lewis Goodall of BBC Newsnight said that ‘most Tory Leave MPs aren’t that fussed about an extension’ in the current circumstances.

Realists may also be encouraged by public opinion which now favours an extension by around 2 to 1, though, as Prof John Curtice points out, the section of the population that was key for Johnson in December election win remains against an extension.

Overall the crisis is surely strengthening the case for realism and Conservatives calling for an extension may become more influential. I now think that an extension agreed before July is more likely than not (6/10 now compared to 1/10 in late February). But there are still plenty of Brexit ultras in government and the Conservative party. We don’t really know how many leading Conservatives would be willing to accept no-deal and all the consequent disruption. Or whether their actions are just grandstanding to try to get the EU to back down. And it won’t be easy for realists. Johnson has created a large following and yes-men/women and sycophants among Conservative ministers (and even some senior civil servants). Will enough of them be willing to make the case for an extension? And will Johnson himself begin to have second thoughts?