The prospects of a hard Brexit

11 May 2020

In the fourth instalment in this series, Roger Liddle argues that the government's negotiating strategy for Brexit needs a fundamental rethink

Roger Liddle
Editorial credit: Diana Vucane / Shutterstock.com

For the previous instalment in this series, please click here.

Both the substance and the self-imposed timetable for current government policy on Brexit give cause for alarm. Both timetable and substance may well change as a result of the Covid crisis, but it is seriously alarming they have not changed so far. The current negotiations between the UK and the EU are not going to reach a happy outcome, without some mutual give in a very short time. The British government in particular needs to climb down from its self-imagined victorious pedestal and shed the immediate post Brexit arrogant posturing of the first two months of this year. At present, we are on a collision course for failure. The consequences could be grave

  • first, for the UK economically, there are huge risks involved in coping with the impact of ‘no deal’ or of a very bad deal, on top of the grave Covid emergency.
  • secondly, for the success of Britain’s future post-Brexit relationship with our European friends and allies.

Optimists hope the post-Covid world will present an opportunity to rebuild an international rules-based order because there will emerge a stronger appreciation of the interdependencies that all nations share. Pessimists fear it will strengthen the forces of populist nationalism in the United States, Asia, Europe and elsewhere. Our newly ‘independent, sovereign’ Britain will find itself badly squeezed between the brutal forces of competing self-interest. Either way Britain will need friends, allies and partners, and most of the reliable candidates are on the Continent of Europe.

There has to be a dramatic rethink. It has to start in London, in the coming weeks, in the office of the Prime Minister.

The shift in government policy to a harder Brexit  

The general election result settled the Brexit question for the foreseeable future, at least to the extent that the European question in British politics can ever be settled. Remainers were forced to come to terms with the bitter lessons of their defeat. As the Johnson government celebrated their misleading claim that they had “got Brexit done”, they sought to highlight a radical domestic agenda that would distinguish this new Conservative government from the decade of austerity that had preceded it.

As a result, few commentators have noticed that there has been marked shift towards a much harder Brexit. This hardening was evident from the start of the December general election campaign, away from the policy envisaged in the Political Declaration that Boris Johnson agreed with the EU’s leaders in October[1]. The scope of this new divergence was carefully analysed in a March 2020 report of the House of Lords European Union Committee[2]. This report compared the positions agreed between the EU and UK in the October Political Declaration with, on the one hand, the Council of the European Union’s negotiating mandate published on February 25th [3], and on the other, the British Government’s approach to the negotiations as set out in the Written Ministerial Statement on February 3rd[4] and the Government’s White Paper of February 27th[5].

The Committee, in its measured and objective way, (with some leading Brexiteers to be counted among its current membership[6]),  detected that both parties to the forthcoming negotiations had shifted their positions. However while the Council Decision of the EU “taken as a whole….is a development of, rather than a departure from, the Political Declaration”[7],the Committee pointedly described the UK government’s approach in the following terms: “while the Political Declaration, whatever its limitations and ambiguities, embodied a shared understanding of the future relationship, that shared understanding has now disappeared”[8]. 

Quite fortuitously the Select Committee’s report was debated in the Lords on Monday March 16th as the opening stages of the Covid crisis was coming to a head; a week after, Parliament shut down early for its Easter Recess. As is typical of many Lords debates, and understandably given the escalating scale of the Covid crisis on the day in question, the debate received little media or public attention. But as so often in the Lords, it did bring together a remarkable collection of expertise in holding the government to account: former diplomats of the calibre of David Hannay[9] and John Kerr[10]; a former chief of staff to Prime Minister Theresa May, Gavin Barwell[11]; and a former Northern Ireland Secretary and Europe Minister, Peter Hain[12]; as well as other peers who have served in less elevated political capacities. The analysis will draw on their contributions.

The Chair of the EU Select Commitee, the Earl of Kinnoull (Charles Hay)[13] introduced the debate in carefully balanced terms, but there was no doubting his overall conclusion on the government’s negotiating position. “Statecraft might be served by at least some flexibility”.

The most significant change of all has been a fundamental shift of ambition for the type of post-Brexit relationship the UK is now seeking with the EU. Mrs May frequently spoke of her aim of facilitating a “deep and special partnership”. But for all Boris Johnson’s warm words about our European friends, there is nothing deep about the economic partnership he is now seeking for Britain – a better word to describe it would be distant. And a constant theme of ministerial pronouncements on Brexit since the December general election is that we want nothing special from the EU: rather we want our relations with Europe to be on a par with every other friendly sovereign state in the world. Our own sovereignty matters far more than our geographical closeness, the depth of mutual economic integration on both sides of the Channel, or our shared common interests and values. This marked hardening of position is most evident in the shift of tone and policy from the Political Declaration Johnson agreed in October which formed part of what he memorably described as his “oven ready deal”. As John Kerr put it in a recent Lords debate before the Coronavirus lockdown, “the (government’s) thesis seems to be the political situation is now different, so we can just pick and choose the bits (of the Political Declaration) we like”. He agreed that “aiming low” will “increase the chances of getting something agreed by the end of the year”, but it will be “a narrow deal, a shallow deal and a very bad deal – but if that is what we want, I think it is possible”.  A Brexit extension should be seen not just as a delay to a looming disaster due to the extenuating circumstances of Covid, but an opportunity for a decisive swerve of policy that avoids one.

This hardening of government policy started with Mrs May’s overthrow, but its full extent only became clear in the first weeks of 2020 before the Corona lockdown. Mrs May’s starting point was to view Brexit as an exercise in damage limitation. As a cautious Remainer by instinct, she could never bring herself to talk enthusiastically of Brexit’s great benefits. Rather she chose to define the Brexit she had been charged with, sticking to the simple terms that many rank and file Conservatives understood it to mean, namely: “to take back control of our money, laws, and borders”. In the first months of her premiership Theresa May may have imperfectly understood the detailed implications of those simplistic commitments in terms of the complexities of the UK-EU relationship. Nevertheless, she wanted a Brexit that kept the UK as economically as close as possible to the EU, while permitting the British government to escape the EU’s free movement rules, and she was prepared to bend her ‘red lines’ to achieve this. She pushed for regulatory alignment in goods; a Northern Ireland backstop that for a long interim period would effectively kept the whole of the UK in the EU Customs Union; and an eventual deal on customs facilitation that would have resulted in ‘frictionless’ trade and the avoidance of new controls at the EU/UK border. She was less specific when it came to the trade in services, and was keen to promote extensive mutual recognition arrangements, as long as the EU would give her some leeway to relax the free movement obligations of the Treaties. A tougher line on immigration both suited her personal instincts and as she saw it, met the main concern of Leave voters in the referendum. It was also a crucial part of her perception of her personal empathy with what she described as the ‘just about managing’ voters.

Boris Johnson’s world view is quite different. Vote Leave had won the referendum by a cynical and at times xenophobic exploitation of public fears of mass immigration; many political scientists have no doubt that it was immigration that produced the winning Leave margin. But in Johnson’s view of politics, that is all part of legitimate hardball tactics that are necessary when playing the game to win. Stopping EU immigration was never a central part of his personal motivation for backing Leave. Johnson boasts of his Turkish ancestry and he is a natural libertarian at heart. To the extent that he actually ever really wanted to leave the EU, his motives were twofold. First, there was the Johnson who had made his name as a Brussels journalist with horror stories of Brussels bureaucracy and overregulation (always hyped, frequently false). Second, there was his own view of his inner self as a Churchill figure, leading England (as Churchill would have put it) to new greatness. Of course, he must be well aware of Churchill’s remarkable “Europe Unite” speeches of post war reconciliation. But it was the Churchill of the grand Imperial vision, of his sense of our country’s unique history and place in the world, and of his instinctive belief in the British buccaneering spirit across the “open seas” that stirred Johnson’s imagination. Johnson has somehow managed to convince himself that a reassertion of sovereignty as a result of Brexit, a restoration of our independence (as Brexiteers love to describe it), is somehow a reassertion of British greatness. This fatally confuses ‘power’ with ‘sovereignty’. Sovereignty is essentially a legal concept; power is the ability to make things happen. On this confused world view, symbols matter as much, perhaps even more, than the reality of Britain’s global position.

So, for Johnson, what mattered politically was the perception of his victory in Brussels last October, tearing up Mrs May’s much hated Northern Ireland Protocol and negotiating another, while maintaining the essential substance of the original. Rather he successfully shrouded the detailed terms in obscurity, although he must have realised that, to say the least, they were constitutionally challenging. The painful cries of betrayal from his once loyal Unionist supporters were crowded out by the shrieks of delight from the English Brexiteers. For them the scrapping of Mrs May’s all UK backstop ditched the requirement for “regulatory alignment” with Brussels, at least for Great Britain. It opened up for them the pleasing vista of an arms-length free trade agreement between Great Britain and the European Union, the ‘Canada’ deal, which in the referendum the Brexiteers had proclaimed as the ‘easiest trade deal to negotiate in history’, which in David Davis’ later words would deliver ‘exactly the same benefits’ as UK membership of the European single market. In their view, all that stood in the way of what they saw as a  logical and rational outcome was the intransigence of the Brussels ideologues who wanted to punish Britons for daring to vote for Brexit and set an example to any other member state tempted to show such defiance of Brussels and of what Brexiteers quaintly regard as its imperial delusions.

For the Brexiteers, their October success created a moment of true hubris: their long standing goal was within their grasp and once an 80 seat majority had been won and a government of true Brexit believers was formed, they resolved to demonstrate to the bureaucrats of Brussels that this was a government that would not allow itself to be pushed around by a group of people who in their view are paper tigers with no democratic legitimacy. The preceding paragraphs hopefully capture the shift in Brexiteer psychology which by the time of the Covid crisis broke, had transmuted itself into a set of impossibilist negotiating positions.

[1] Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, laid before Parliament October 19th, 2019.

[2] Report pursuant to section 29 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act: Council Decision authorising the opening of negotiations with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for a new partnership agreement. Published March 5th2020. HL P:aper 32

[3] COM 2020 (35): Annex to the Council Decision authorising the opening of negotiations with the UK.

[4] Written Ministerial Statement by the Prime Minister on UK/EU relations. HC debate, 3rd February 2020, HCWS 86.

[5] The Future Relationship with the EU: The UK’s Approach to the Negotiations. Command Paper 211, 27th February 2020.

[6] For example, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Lamont of Lerwick, and Lord Cavendish of Furness

[7] Para 17 HL Paper 32

[8] Para 22 HL Paper 32

[9] Lord Hannay of Chiswick. UK Permanent Representative to the EEC, 1985-90. UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations, 1990-95.

[10] Lord Kerr of Kinlochard. UK Permanent Representative to the EU 1990-95, UK Ambassador to the United States 1995-7, Permanent Secretary, FCO 1997-2002. Secretary General of the European Convention 2002-3.

[11] Lord Barwell, Conservative Central office 1993-2010, Conservative MP for Croydon South 2010-17, Downing St Chief of Staff 2017-19.

[12][12] Lord Hain. Labour MP for Neath 1991-2015, Minister of Europe 2001-2, Welsh Secretary 2002-3 Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 2005-7.

[13] The 16th Earl is a cross bench hereditary peer. He joined the House of Lords in 2015 and has been chair of the European Union Select Committee since 2019, succeeding Lord Boswell of Aynho.

In the next instalment in this series, available here, Roger Liddle reflects on the challenges of the 2020 deadline for Brexit negotiations.