For U.K.’s Boris Johnson, hardball tactics seem the only way to a Brexit deal

By Stephen Castle

Britain was at sea, lost in a “fog of self-doubt.” It had dithered only to retreat. And in its pursuit of Brexit, it exuded a “conspicuous infirmity of purpose.”

When Boris Johnson, now prime minister, resigned as foreign secretary in 2018, he was brutal in his critique of the government he had quit and of its leader, Theresa May.

Now, more than a year after her ouster, trade talks with the European Union are deadlocked, the mood is poisonous, and there are only weeks left to salvage a deal as Britain prepares to leave the bloc’s economic zone in January. But Johnson has already achieved what some analysts say is his one overriding objective: to avoid any comparisons of his negotiating style to that of his predecessor, May.

While critics lampooned her as weak and risk-averse, Johnson has gone to the other extreme, most recently by threatening to walk away from parts of a Brexit withdrawal agreement that he struck with the EU only last year.

That prompted outrage, threats of legal action and speculation that the trade negotiations could collapse. But many analysts say this is just another move from Johnson’s hardball Brexit playbook.

“He absolutely had to have a bust-up to prove he wasn’t Theresa May,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College, London, referring to the government’s threat to override parts of an agreement that was designed to prevent the creation of a hard border between Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

Menon puts at 50-50 the odds of Britain’s leaving the EU’s economic zone in January with no trade deal at all.

But in stating this month that this would still be a “good outcome,” Johnson made a blunt point that, unlike May, he has a solid majority in Parliament and the power to take an economic risk by leaving the bloc without a trade agreement.

“There is a clarity about what Boris Johnson is doing that was lacking under Theresa May,” Menon said, “so to that extent, he can still bask in the glow of doing better than she did.”

Whether that will translate into a deal will be tested in the coming weeks as the Brexit negotiations reach a climax with just a little cautious optimism in the air.

The backdrop to those talks is one of acute mistrust, worsened when Johnson threatened to walk back part of the withdrawal agreement that he struck last year. But the main theory in Brussels is that this was designed to raise the stakes in the negotiations, gain diplomatic attention and accelerate engagement at the highest political level.

These discussions are stuck on the issues of fisheries quotas and, most seriously, on Britain’s reluctance to agree on a set of antitrust rules with the EU that would limit London’s ability to subsidize its own companies (and therefore, Brussels fears, dump cheap goods in continental Europe).

Historically, British governments — and particularly ones under the Conservative Party, which Johnson now leads — have tended to spend less cash this way than many of their continental counterparts, making this an odd issue on which to torpedo an agreement.

The blockage seems to come from Johnson’s powerful adviser, Dominic Cummings, who sees no need for Britain to tie itself to any European rules and wants the freedom to subsidize the high-tech industries of the future, said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a research institute.

The combative Cummings appears content to do without any trade deal with the EU, and, in line with its hardball approach, the British government has gone into battle over an issue that few Britons care about. But there are differing shades of opinion and priorities in Downing Street.

“Ultimately I think Boris Johnson wants a deal,” Grant said.

True, Britain is now asking for a much more basic agreement than May sought, and the economic gains of striking one are correspondingly lower. But the economy is more important now because the coronavirus has left British businesses reeling and in a weaker position to cope with the fallout of a “no deal” exit.

For many supporters of Brexit, May’s government was nothing short of a humiliation, with Parliament paralyzed, Britain missing deadlines for leaving the EU and their project ridiculed. Some also felt that their warnings had been ignored because, while May insisted that having no Brexit deal would be better than getting a bad one, few felt that she meant it.

“Any negotiator knows that you can only obtain a good outcome if you are willing to walk away from a bad one,” Peter Lilley, a former minister who supports Brexit, wrote in 2017.

When Dominic Raab, who is now foreign secretary, resigned as Brexit secretary the following year, he repeated the argument, insisting, “To be taken seriously, we must be willing to walk away.”

Johnson, having threatened to do exactly that — and having distanced himself so thoroughly from his predecessor — has given himself the political space with Brexit supporters to compromise should he opt to do so.

“Ultimately, if Boris Johnson wants a deal, he can overcome any opposition in the Conservative Party; it will take what it is given,” said Grant, who worked as a journalist in Brussels at the same time as Johnson in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“It’s theater, and it might work,” Grant said of Johnson’s aggressive style — although he added that, as with any high-wire act, it can always go wrong, particularly with this political performer.

“Boris Johnson doesn’t necessarily have a strategy for delivering what he wants,” Grant said. “He lives from week to week.”

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