The 10 Brexits Boris Johnson must consider

Former Europe Minister Denis MacShane lays out the various scenarios that the Prime Minister should bear in mind before making his final decision on the UK’s withdraw.
UK Prime Minister with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen | Source: Press Association Images

By Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister of Europe

27 Aug 2020

The latest round of negotiation on a Brexit deal ended with downbeat comments from both sides, with UK chief negotiator David Frost saying the EU had to understand "the reality" of Brexit Britain. For an experienced time-served diplomat this was condescending, patronising language.

In reality it was Daily Express language used by the hard-line anti-European faction in the British government headed by Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. It was for domestic consumption - and especially for internal Tory Party consumption.

In contrast, his EU counterpart Michel Barnier simply said he was “disappointed" with the lack of compromise from the British side and their expectation that EU leaders will bow to Britain’s demands for continued access to EU markets, data exchanges, and the right of British financial service professionals to work in any EU27 capital as they do today. Barnier told me “I’ll keep calm and determined until the very last day available for this negotiation.”

Commentators in London chew over the exact nature of a new economic relationship between the UK and Europe. But they are focusing on the wrong target. To reverse the famous slogan, “It’s economics, stupid”, Brexit is pure, “It’s politics, stupid.”

The year will end with a political decision principally made by Boris Johnson and him alone. Cabinet government does not exist in the UK anymore. The House of Commons is irrelevant. It is what happens inside the prime minister’s head that will determine what sort of Brexit we get this year.

Here are 10 political Brexits Mr Johnson has to ponder before making his final decision.

1. Tory Brexit

The Conservatives finally won a big majority last December for the first time since 1987. All Tory MPs owe Mr Johnson their seats. Most have believed in the past 15 years’ worth of propaganda about the EU. But the Tory party is rooted in English capitalism, farming, commerce and the City. As long as Johnson delivers an end to British EU treaty membership, how many Tory MPs will want the full-Monty Brexit demanded by the septuagenarian generation of Tory anti-Europeans like John Redwood, Bill Cash and David Davis? If Johnson says what he brings home is a good Brexit, will Tory MPs rise in revolt?

2. Labour Brexit

The policy of Sir Keir Starmer is to “say no Brexit, see no Brexit, hear no Brexit”. Labour hopes a hard Brexit, or WTO Brexit will lead to massive queues at Dover or Calais as the 10,000 lorries that arrive each day, with fresh food and most of what Britain imports, queue for checks, leading to negative images on TV, shortages of goods or medicines, and giving the impression Brexit equals chaos. Will Mr Johnson offer Sir Keir Starmer this political gift of a disruptive chaotic Brexit?

“Commentators in London chew over the exact nature of a new economic relationship between the UK and Europe. But they are focusing on the wrong target. To reverse the famous slogan, “It’s economics, stupid”, Brexit is pure, “It’s politics, stupid.”

3. Business Brexit

Since 2016, the CBI, other business and trade federations, and the City have kept under the duvet and refused to challenge Brexit. But as road hauliers, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), and importers face massive new paperwork problems, and the City loses more and more business as Britain’s third country status cuts lucrative trade with 27 EU countries, will British capitalism finally speak out?

4. Scottish Brexit

Scots are furious that a southern elite English political class has denied Scots their right to be European. Does Mr Johnson want to see even bigger support for the Scottish nationalists in next May’s election to the Scottish Parliament and a subsequent independence referendum that risks ending the UK?

5. Irish Brexit

Mr Johnson has already conceded that the six British counties in the north of Ireland will have different trade rules to allow normal commerce with the Republic of Ireland. A hard Brexit will accentuate the divorce between all of Ireland and England.

6. David Frost’s Brexit

In a paper written in 2015, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, now Lord Frost, argued “two essential requirements for a successful negotiation” are firstly “having allies” and second “making what you want seem normal.” He also said any Brexit negotiation had to be bipartisan. There is not much time for the prime minister to meet those requirements.

7. Joe Biden’s Brexit

2016 saw the birth of the nationalist populist political Siamese twin: Trump-Brexit. If Biden wins the White House, one half of that Siamese twin is separated from the runt: Brexit. Biden is no fan of Mr Johnson or of nationalist populism. Does Mr Johnson want to bury the already anaemic special relationship?

8. Expat Brexit

There has been a downplaying of the huge disruption to life for the two million Brits who bought in good faith a second or retirement home on the continent. Estate agents are still selling that dream of life in the sun with cheaper wine and food. In fact, it will be impossible for Brits to spend more than three months consecutively living in Europe, with very big increases in health insurance and astronomical old age care costs. Many will miserably come home to Britain and be very angry about a hard Brexit.

“Brexit will be about politics and requires political decisions of the highest order, not technical fixes by trade negotiators”

9. Global Brexit

Ever since Suez, Britain’s voice has been magnified and multiplied in world affairs as a leading nation shaping European-wide policy responses to different issues. We still have 40 Royal Navy ships and 41 admirals, but there will be fewer British Army soldiers than new bureaucrats hired to handle the hundreds of millions of forms to be filled in to do trade with Europe as a third country.

10. Brexiternity

The hope that the European question is answered, and the file closed on 1 January is a dream. Brexit, unless based on serious compromise, leaving key issues to be decided at a later stage, will continue to be a big issue in British politics and in terms of all our relations with our neighbours. Brexit is only just beginning.

These are Mr Johnson’s political Brexit options, if he can find the spare time given all the other crises he has on his plate. Brexit will be about politics and requires political decisions of the highest order, not technical fixes by trade negotiators.

Read the most recent articles written by Denis MacShane - Valéry Giscard d’Estaing: A trailblazer for Europe