Johnson’s game of ‘chicken’ is taking its toll

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on August 07, 2019

Angst | Will Boris Johnson and his Brexiteers destroy Britain’s strengths?   -  Bloomberg

The British pound has tumbled to fresh lows, automakers are cutting production, and retailers reported their worst July

Having to sneak out the back door to avoid hostile crowds bodes ill for any prime minister, especially early on in their term. So, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chose the coward’s exit after a tense meeting with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh, it was a clear sign that things weren’t going his way.

Johnson obviously hasn’t thumbed through his copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People lately. He kicked off in the top job by declaring he’d lead Britain out of the European Union as scheduled on October 31 but he wouldn’t talk to EU leaders until they came begging at his doorstep with a new deal that met his terms. On Monday, Britain’s new Brexit negotiator David Frost delivered that message in Brussels. An EU spokeswoman said Tuesday the agreement negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor Teresa May was the “best possible deal” and could not be reopened. One EU negotiator summed up Britain’s tactics calling it, “a high-stakes game of chicken.”

Closer to home, Johnson is also having a hard time finding friends. He took the bull by the horns soon after becoming PM and journeyed up to Scotland where Brexit is highly unpopular. There he met Sturgeon, who described their talks as “soul-destroying”. He also was booed in Wales where farmers could be ruined if EU subsidies halt.

But none of this appeared to faze Johnson who pointedly waited for a week before telephoning the Republic of Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. The Irish border is where the Unstoppable Force of Brexit meets its Immoveable Object in the form of the EU need for a border where its trade zone ends.

Unfortunately, for ardent Brexiteers like Johnson, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement with the Irish government stipulates open borders between the Republic of Ireland and Britain’s Northern Ireland province. On both sides of the border, many small businesses and rural communities depend on the ability to go back and forth between the two countries.

Johnson and his team insist technological solutions can be found for the Irish Backstop problem but in Brussels even Frost admitted they wouldn’t be ready by October 31. Says Karan Bilimoria, a crossbench peer: “Northern Ireland’s the Achilles Heel of Brexit. There has to be an open border.”

Keeping up his bluster

Johnson is keeping up his bluster and belligerence and hoping leading EU economies like Germany are already feeling the pain of an economic slowdown and are more eager for a deal with Britain than they’re admitting. While Varadkar’s Ireland is a relatively small, though successful, economy in the EU, for the Irish there’s always the worry they’ll be sacrificed for the greater good if Brussels feels a deal with Britain is essential to prevent chaos. Irish firms have been reducing reliance on Britain since the 2016 vote for Brexit but the two countries are still closely intertwined.

So, what could be Johnson’s next moves in this stand-off? He’s tried to sweet-talk voters who want to remain in the EU by promising to deliver on bread-and-butter issues like putting more police officers on the beat, hiking income-tax thresholds and earmarking an extra £1.8 billion for Britain’s beloved National Health Service, but critics noted he was only returning money the NHS held in its reserves.

All Johnson’s pledges seemingly point to an early election, especially since he’s brought in Dominic Cummings, the master-strategist who helped engineer the Brexit victory. But that could be a knife-edge exercise as the Conservatives are down to a one-seat majority. Britain’s perpetually left-at-the-altar Liberal Democrats won a by-election last week and there are signs voters, attracted by the LibDems’ unabashedly anti-Brexit stance, are embracing the party in ever-larger numbers.

Still, there’s no denying Britons are badly divided on Brexit. Polls show the new Brexit Party, launched by slick-talking, anti-immigrant politician Nigel Farage could snare 15 per cent of the vote. In fact, a Labour-Lib Dem alliance might just get around 44 per cent of the vote, almost on par with what the Conservatives could muster if they tied up with Farage’s party. Allying with Farage, though, would be humiliating for the Conservatives as part of Johnson’s appeal was the party figured he had sufficient charisma to outshine Farage.

In fact, the only question about an election seems whether it would be in the 87 days before October 31 or after no-deal Brexit. British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has said he’ll introduce a no-confidence motion at the first opportunity. Now, the debate’s on whether Johnson can refuse to resign after losing a no-confidence vote.

And losing a parliamentary vote is all the more likely since Johnson alienated many potential backers by creating a cabinet of no-deal Brexit believers and ejecting all others. Already, the ex-chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond has declared he’ll vote against a no-deal and so has Conservative grandee Kenneth Clarke. Several others have taken similar stands. Johnson might survive a vote but only if a handful of pro-Brexit Labour MPs back him.

Britain joined the European Economic Community (as it was then) in 1973. Untangling the ties binding the two sides will be fiendishly complicated. Even now, only a few key issues like the Irish Backstop, EU citizens’ rights and the £39-billion payment to the EU have been delineated. Under May’s deal, rejected three times by MPs, Britain was supposed to remain in an EU customs union until other big issues like their trading relationship, security, space technology and even medicines were sorted out post-Brexit. If Britain leaves on bad terms, there’d be no incentive for the EU “to play nice.” Says Bilimoria: “We won’t be part of Europe but in a state of uncertainty till all this is negotiated.”

On the destruction path?

Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s game of “chicken” is taking a toll on the British economy. In the last few days, the pound has tumbled to fresh lows and automakers, including Jaguar Land Rover, are cutting production. Retailers reported their worst July ever. While Johnson’s established a “war room” to manage no-deal preparations, the truth is neither side is ready.

Britain survived loss of an empire by becoming a banking hub and base for companies wanting to attack the European market. This was particularly so for Indian companies for which setting up a London base was a happily comfortable affair with the language and a familiar governmental system making it easy to navigate. But now firms are opening European mainland beachheads and giving staff crash courses in Dutch and German.

Will Johnson and his Brexiteers destroy Britain’s great strengths developed over the last 35 years? An absurd soap opera is playing out that can only end in tears at a time when the world economy’s heading into rough waters. There can be no good ending for it.

Published on August 07, 2019

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