Boris Johnson may have found the ultimate act of political revenge.
Having been stabbed in the back by Michael Gove in his first tilt at
being Conservative party leader, Britain’s prime minister has now handed the cabinet office minister the task of delivering Brexit in the middle of a pandemic and the worst economic climate in living memory.
It is four years since Mr Gove, then running Mr Johnson’s leadership campaign, declared that he had “reluctantly” concluded Mr Johnson was incapable of “leading the party and country in the way that I had hoped”. It killed Mr Johnson’s leadership bid but by 2019 he had won the top job then delivered an 80-seat majority in December’s election to cement his position.
When the pair campaigned for Brexit in 2016 they were deliberately
light on specifics. Mr Gove is now responsible for filling in the details. And as EU-UK trade talks enter a decisive phase this week, the stakes for Britain could hardly be higher.
Last week Mr Johnson announced the start of a second wave of national coronavirus restrictions stretching into spring. Meanwhile Mr Gove gave the country a glimpse of the “reasonable worst-case scenario” it could face on January 1 when the post-Brexit transition deal with the EU ends, and Britain “taking back control” of its borders becomes a reality.
Mr Gove, who claims Brexit will unshackle Britain as a champion of global free trade, told MPs that unless urgent action was taken by the haulage sector, up to 60 per cent of trucks could arrive in Dover — the nearest port to mainland Europe — without the required paperwork to trade with the EU when the UK leaves the single market and customs union.
“In that scenario, flows across the critical short-strait crossings could be reduced by 60 to 80 per cent compared with the normal rate,” he said. “Such circumstances could lead to queues of up to 7,000 HGVs in Kent.”
A vast lorry park is being built to accommodate them. But the prospect of the country running short of fresh food in the midst of a pandemic and during the Christmas holiday would be unlikely to boost the government’s tattered reputation for competence, as ministers ruefully admit. Or indeed Mr Gove’s leadership ambitions.
So while Mr Johnson set out plans to further shutdown the British economy over the winter to the dismay of some Conservative MPs, Mr Gove was ridiculed for proposing that truckers should now have to carry an access permit — dubbed the “Kent passport” — to drive into the county, even before they hit the new trade border with the EU at Dover. He is already spending more than £350m to help British companies trade with another part of the UK: Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal creates new trade barriers between the British mainland and Northern Ireland.
On Tuesday Theresa May, Mr Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister, will lead a Tory rebellion against his decision to break international law on Brexit by overriding parts of his own withdrawal treaty in relation to Northern Ireland, a decision condemned by everyone from US presidential candidate Joe Biden to Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.
A separate, Conservative revolt is also under way. At least 40 ruling party MPs, who no longer trust the prime minister to take the right decisions on coronavirus, will on Wednesday demand the right to vote on the introduction of any new lockdown restrictions.
Some Tory MPs are simply choosing to avert their eyes. “Every week is an ordeal,” says one veteran Conservative MP. “It’s driving me bonkers.” Another adds: “There are MPs frothing at the mouth. Of course people understand that Boris Johnson won the last election but there is a really mutinous feeling in the air, a sense that he has lost control of his own party.”
It is against this chaotic backdrop that Mr Johnson and Mr Gove enter a crucial week of trade talks with the EU, faced with the big question: deal or no deal? As Conservative MPs openly question the government’s competence and the economy staggers into a bleak winter exacerbated by Covid-19, do the country’s two most prominent Brexiters really want to gamble with an acrimonious final rupture with the EU on January 1?
There is a commonly held view — including in Brussels — that the Brexit hardliners advising Mr Johnson believe that amid all the other turmoil and economic damage inflicted by Covid-19, the disruption caused by a hard or “clean break” Brexit over the new year would barely be noticed. Some EU officials say that while a trade deal is do-able, Mr Johnson’s key advisers do not want one and aim to blame an “intransigent” EU when talks collapse.
David Frost, chief UK negotiator, and Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s powerful chief adviser, are thought by some in Brussels to want a no-deal outcome for “political reasons”: the idea that a complete rupture with the EU would give Britain the freedom to set its own destiny without any compromise with Brussels.
With talks stuck for months on the main issues of fishing quotas and the UK’s future state subsidy regime, some believe Mr Johnson is looking for an excuse for the talks to fail. His controversial internal market bill — containing the threat that he would rip up parts of the withdrawal treaty he signed with the EU just months ago — was seen in Brussels not just as a negotiating ploy, but further evidence that London was preparing for a “no-deal” outcome.
“Johnson and his team persuaded themselves that the EU would be so panicked that they would give in eventually,” Ivan Rogers, former UK ambassador to Brussels, told the Irish Times. “And it didn’t happen. Boris didn’t, I believe, start off as a true no-dealer, but he seems now formally in the camp with Dominic Cummings [that says]: ‘to hell with it, we should walk away’.”
Even some Conservative MPs supportive of Mr Johnson fear he has been captured by Mr Cummings and the Vote Leave Brexit hardliners in Downing Street. “He’s like Aung San Suu Kyi, surrounded by the generals, occasionally wheeled out to smile and say everything will be OK,” says one former minister in a reference to the Myanmar leader.
Time is running out for a deal. A European Council meeting in mid-October will be the moment when EU leaders consider progress — or lack of it — and both sides agree that unless an agreement has been sent to the European Parliament for approval by November, it cannot be enacted by January 1.
Mr Johnson’s preferred “Canada-style” free trade agreement is often described as a “skinny” trade deal. Even if it were agreed, truckers arriving in Dover would still have to carry customs declarations and face new checks where currently there are none.
But it would remove the need for tariffs and quotas on trade — the imposition of which could have potentially disastrous consequences for UK sectors such as farming and carmakers. Over 15 years, the government says a Canada-style deal would see Britain lose around 5 per cent of future growth — compared with EU membership — while a no-deal scenario would cost about 8 per cent over the same period.
A deal would also suggest that both sides were parting amicably, making it possible that the EU would facilitate smoother crossings at the new Dover Straits customs. It would also cover other important issues such as road transport and aviation, while potentially providing a basis for future trade liberalisation.
One person briefed on the UK Treasury assessment of the impact of a no-deal exit says: “It would be a disaster.” Another adds: “The optics around no deal would be terrible. It would damage sentiment and could freeze investment.”
Mr Johnson and Mr Gove insist — as does the recently ennobled Lord Frost — that they want a trade deal consistent with Britain’s status as an “independent country”. And there is a growing belief in Westminster and Brussels that the recent ratcheting up of rhetoric about no deal — and Mr Johnson’s provocative threat over the internal market bill — is part of the inevitable ritual before an agreement is finally signed.
Rishi Sunak, the ambitious chancellor, seems untroubled by the non-progress of trade talks, telling colleagues that he would not be working on details of a future British state aid regime — vital to unlocking a deal with the EU — if he thought he was wasting his time. The other outstanding issue on fishing quotas is on the way to being settled, according to officials on both sides.
“There’s definitely going to be a deal,” says one senior MP close to Mr Sunak. “Boris has basically decided he’s going to accept a deal, but he has to go out and get a bloody face first. It was what he did in 2019 — he talked tough, then signed up to the Brexit deal that was on the table. Cummings and Boris have told Rishi to trust them; ‘it’s going to be OK’.”
In Brussels, there is already speculation on when — and with whom — Mr Johnson will have his “Varadkar moment”, a reference to the prime minister’s meeting with the former Irish premier Leo Varadkar at a hotel near Liverpool in 2019 that ultimately unlocked the Brexit withdrawal deal. Emmanuel Macron, French president, is often seen as the most likely intermediary in this scenario, dubbed by EU officials “the Boris folds and claims a great victory paradigm”.
Thought is now being given in Brussels to the possible choreography of such a deal, starting with this week’s trade talks. Lord Frost needs to be able to give Michel Barnier, his EU counterpart, a signal that Britain is willing to move on state aid and rebuild trust following the debacle — which is now acknowledged by senior figures in the Johnson team — over the internal market bill. The UK’s government’s exit strategy cabinet committee is due to meet on Monday to decide how far any concessions could extend, according to two people familiar with the plans.
If the broad outlines of a deal are on the table by the end of this week, one option being weighed in Brussels is for both sides to go into the so-called “negotiating tunnel” — a leak-free, sealed space where the final dealmaking takes place — before EU leaders meet in Brussels on October 15 and 16.
However, EU diplomats say that would require a big leap by both sides and Mr Johnson’s willingness to flout international law has only hardened Brussels’ determination to have a robust mechanism to deal with possible disputes over state aid or other potential violations of the deal. EU officials say “governance” has emerged as a problem area in the talks because the bill has further hardened the EU’s will to secure ironclad guarantees of good UK behaviour, backed by the means for rapid retaliation.
But the mood around the talks has become more positive in London in recent days. Downing Street said: “We are now in the final period of negotiations. There remains a lot of work to do and either outcome is possible.”
Some ministers believe Mr Johnson has already made the political calculation he has to secure a deal, fearing that if he failed to deliver the EU trade deal he promised, it would only add to the mutinous mood among his MPs and fuel claims at Westminster that he was simply not capable of leading the country through such dark times.
Mr Gove, a Scot, is preoccupied with the threat of Scotland seceding from the 313-year union; ministers admit that anti-Brexit Scots are unlikely to be more enamoured with the UK if Britain leaves the EU without a trade deal. Leaders of the Scottish National party — who opposed Brexit and want a second referendum on independence — claim Mr Johnson, with his threat to break international law, is running a “rogue UK”.
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour party, last week launched a stinging attack on Mr Johnson in remarks that wounded because they reflected what many Conservative MPs say privately — and what public opinion polls reflect too. “This government’s incompetence is holding Britain back,” he said.
Sir Keir, whose main purpose since becoming leader is to present himself as a solid, unflashy, prime minister-in-waiting, added: “Crisis reveals character like nothing else and I think we’ve learnt a lot about this prime minister. Tory backbenchers know it, his cabinet knows it, we all know it: he’s just not serious. He’s just not up to the job.”
Mr Johnson is well aware of the discontent in his own party and he needs a victory soon. Mr Sunak, meanwhile, is increasingly seen by Tory MPs and the rightwing media as the heir apparent, the Daily Mail newspaper claiming on Friday that the chancellor had “upstaged” the “cautious, health-focused PM” with his coolly presented Covid-19 economic package, in which he urged the country to “live without fear”.
A trade deal with the EU, Britain’s biggest trading partner, is within reach and senior Conservatives are now much more confident that Mr Johnson will grasp it, albeit after some further drama and possible walkouts. Lynton Crosby, a longtime friend and election adviser to the prime minister, told the Financial Times last week: “In the past, the EU has thought Britain’s an easy touch and in the end they’ll roll over . . . in negotiations like this, you need a little bit of crazy to keep your opponents guessing.”
Four years after Mr Gove questioned Mr Johnson’s capacity to run the country — and with Britain facing an increasingly bleak winter — Mr Johnson must now prove his former campaign manager wrong.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne and Jim Pickard in London