Last reviewed 28 June 2019
If as Harold Wilson said a week is a long time in politics then just look what can happen in a month. In our previous review of the Brexit situation, a cast of thousands was assembling to contest the leadership of the Conservative Party: now the likes of Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab are a distant memory as the field has been reduced to two. To no great surprise, one of the candidates left standing after a series of elimination votes by Conservative MPs is Boris Johnson: the other is Jeremy Hunt, cast in the role of the plucky outsider. They now face meetings with Conservative party members across the country until, on Tuesday 23 July, the winner will be announced and we will have a new leader of the Conservative Party, and a new Prime Minister. Then the fun will start.
It’s a date
Assuming that whoever wins can convince the Queen that he can command a majority in Parliament, either Mr Johnson or Mr Hunt will be holding his first meetings in Number 10 on 24 July, knowing that he has just 14 weeks before the UK is due to leave the European Union. Mr Johnson has spoken in increasingly strident terms of the absolute need to abide by the “will of the people” and to ensure that Brexit happens on 31 October come what may. Indeed, since the race came down to two, he has become even more fixated on this as his main aim - challenging Mr Hunt to agree with him that this must happen “deal or no deal, do or die”.
“Leaving on 31 October - with no ifs, buts or maybes - is the only way to restore trust in our democracy. In short this is about whether the original people's vote will be respected,” he wrote in an open letter to Mr Hunt. While Mr Johnson insists that the EU must be faced with this absolute determination to leave on the agreed date, his opponent has appeared more guarded. He too is apparently prepared to leave without a deal, if all else fails, but is ready for the deadline to be missed if it looks as though a deal may still be achievable. How long would you wait, Mr Johnson demands – till Christmas… into 2020? He has also reminded Mr Hunt that the Irish Taoiseach has warned that any further extension would be subject to the condition that the UK agrees to hold another referendum.
Let's try again
Where both men agree is that there should be some attempt to reach a “better” deal with the EU, despite the European Commission making it clear that the deal agreed with Mrs May (and soundly rejected by Parliament) is the only one on offer. Mr Johnson believes that taking a firm hand with the EU, and proving his willingness to walk away from the negotiations, will bring about the necessary changes. For Mr Hunt, his connections made as Foreign Secretary have convinced him that the key European players (Germany and France) would be prepared to listen to his ideas.
Presumably he is well aware that his opponent’s spell at the Foreign Office did nothing to persuade the EU that Mr Johnson is a man that they can do business with. Most European politicians remember his early career as the Daily Telegraph’s man in Brussels when, as one commentator put it, he “made a career out of lampooning the ideals, initiatives and institutions of the EU”. Their readiness to view him as a “mini Trump” has not been helped by his statements to the effect that he would withhold the £39 billion payment mentioned in the withdrawal agreement if the EU fails to give his ideas a sufficiently warm hearing. The question left unanswered by both men is why the EU should agree to changes for them that they declined to give to Mrs May.
Time to talk
The point has been made previously in this series of articles that UK politicians throughout these negotiations have been too ready to assume that the EU will agree with their plans, proposals or timetable. Both the current leadership contenders have fallen into the same habit, brushing aside questions about how they will persuade the other side to come around to their way of thinking. They want it to happen, so it will happen. This is an approach likely to be endorsed by President Trump but it has so far failed to work with the likes of Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker. When asked about the likelihood of Brussels reopening the Brexit negotiations, Lord Kerr, former UK ambassador to Brussels and the man who drafted Article 50 on leaving the Union, said: "You can play with the political declaration, you can add some fine words to that but I don’t think you can reopen it. These are unicorns and they are back frolicking in the forest. There have been promises made in this contest that are unfulfillable.”
As well as wondering whether the EU negotiators would be prepared to reopen the withdrawal agreement, having repeatedly told Mrs May that they would not, those with doubts have also queried who exactly Mr Hunt or Mr Johnson would negotiate with. The European Council is at the moment locked in argument over the replacements for Mr Juncker and current Council President Donald Tusk. Both are set to be replaced as a new European Commission takes up its mandate – on 1 November. Could anyone on the EU side agree to far-reaching changes to the agreement with the UK in the last days of their time in office? It seems unlikely.
Is the soft border a fantasy?
In any event, the only changes that would have any chance of persuading the hard-line Brexiters, to whom any new Prime Minister will still have to pay careful attention, concern the Irish backstop. The EU has always insisted that this is necessary to ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, to preserve the Good Friday agreement and to protect the integrity of the Single Market. Mr Johnson, in particular, has waved away their concerns with promises of “alternative arrangements”. These include tests being carried out by mobile units away from the border, the increased use of AEO (Authorised Economic Operator) schemes and the use of Special Economic Zones.
A non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the Alternative Arrangements Commission, chaired by Conservative MPs Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands, has recently released a 100-page report arguing that such arrangements could be fully in place within three years after Brexit. Mr Johnson reportedly described the report as brilliant but there has been no indication as how it was viewed in Brussels or whether the EU would be prepared to time limit the backstop to three years based only on these interim findings (which can be found at www.prosperity-uk.com).
First it was Article 50, now Article 24
For many months, the European Research Group and other hard-line Brexiters have argued that, even in the event of no deal, the UK could flourish under “WTO rules”. Critics of this argument have pointed out that no developed economy trades only under these rules as they offer merely a baseline on top of which countries have worked to establish bilateral or multilateral deals that provide for more beneficial trading arrangements. More recently, however, the view has been aired (by Boris Johnson and others) that one specific and previously undiscussed rule of the World Trade Organisation would prove the answer to those fearing the potentially catastrophic impact of no deal.
Article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt), which underpins the WTO, will, they said, allow the UK to continue to trade with the EU without tariffs (taxes on goods crossing borders) for up to 10 years, while the two sides negotiate a permanent future trade agreement. Problem solved? Sadly not, according to Bank of England Governor Mark Carney who has explained that this provision can only be brought into play once an agreement is in train: it cannot work if the two sides have realised they cannot reach an agreement. So, as Peter Ungphakorn, a former WTO secretariat official, explained: “No deal means there is no agreement with the EU and therefore Gatt Article 24 doesn't apply.” Certainly, the UK cannot invoke Article 24 on its own, the EU would have to agree and EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström has already ruled it out. Back to square one…
Back to the people?
Opponents of a hard Brexit are increasingly concerned that Boris Johnson will win the contest to become the new leader of his party and will then, whether deliberately or by accident, try to take the UK out of the EU with no deal in place. In those circumstances, Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood has warned, the Johnson premiership could be one of the shortest ever as “a dozen or so" Conservative MPs could support a vote of no confidence. This would be more than enough to defeat the Government and, unless another leader could be found who could rally more support, the result would be a general election.