Brexit Briefing: Brexit and the Leadership Question

The aim of the brexit briefings has always been to give an impartial analysis of the state of the Brexit process. However, this last update before my mandate ends takes a slightly different approach to usual. In light of the leadership election I have tried to impartially dissect both candidates' Brexit positions and come to a conclusion about them at the end. 

We are in the midst of the first competitive Conservative party leadership campaign for nearly 15 years.

It comes at a crucial time, not just for the Conservative party, which recently suffered its worst ever national election result in the European elections, but also for the whole country, as the leader chosen by the 160,000 members of the party will also become the Prime Minister.

That Prime Minister will have to urgently navigate the most difficult peacetime issue the UK has ever faced and the one which led to the downfall of the two previous Prime Ministers. They will need to do it without a majority in the House of Commons.

Brexit will define the next Prime Minister, the next general election and the immediate future of the UK itself.

It is therefore, without a doubt, the most important issue in the leadership campaign. Conservative party members are looking for one thing above all - a leader who can deliver the Brexit they were promised when the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016.

The key question is how this can be delivered. Both candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are promising to deliver it. However, as the last two years have shown, desire alone will not be enough.

Rational, hard-headed negotiations, designed to move the EU position and build the consensus for a majority for Brexit in the House of Commons are the only way that Brexit can now actually happen. Any other approach will lead to no Brexit and the likely annihilation of the Conservative Party in any future election.

The two candidates’ positions only vary on how to get to the final outcome, not on the outcome itself. Both want a deal, but not the deal negotiated by Theresa May, which is hugely unpopular within the membership of the Conservative party. Both are prepared to leave with no deal if that is the only option to deliver Brexit.

Boris Johnson’s approach rests on the belief that the threat of a no deal Brexit will be enough to force Brussels back to the negotiating table. He also proposes to try to use Article 24 of the GATT treaty to agree a stand-alone trade deal with the EU in a no deal scenario. Both candidates want to renegotiate the Northern Irish backstop or remove it completely. Whilst Boris Johnson would focus on technological solutions to negate the need for Irish border, Jeremy Hunt favours building a new negotiating team which would include the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteers, the Scottish and Welsh Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and presenting them as a united face to Brussels in order to convince European negotiators that a new approach could command a majority in Parliament.

However, the problem with this debate, as has been the case since the referendum, is that the UK, and in this case the Conservative party, is arguing with itself.

The rhetoric is trying to convince people as to whom is the more committed Brexiteer, when the debate should have moved on to how is the UK going to leave the EU whilst addressing the practical problems which come with it.

BJ

The country voted to leave the EU, now it is a question of delivering it, but that cannot be done unilaterally. There is no outcome that does not involve some sort of negotiation and accommodation with Europe.

As both candidates have ruled out a general election before Brexit happens, the only path to Brexit by the end of October lies through compromise, both in London and in Brussels.

A compromise can be done. In Brussels there is considerable unease about the fact that the rigidity of the EU negotiating position has led to the current stalemate. It is paralysing decision-making at a time when the EU has to address other huge challenges including the migration crisis, the Eurozone and the make-up of the next Commission.

Brussels is therefore open to a compromise, and may ultimately be prepared to make the backstop time limited and commit to looking at alternative ways to police the border. But it won’t be done by playing to the gallery in London or by promises of delivering a “no deal” Brexit, which is likely to be significantly worse in the short term for the UK than for the EU, not least because the EU has already taken a number of mitigating steps to address the worst problems for Europe in such a scenario.

Any deal also won’t be done if Brussels can’t be sure that a compromise can get through the British Parliament. They were burnt by what happened to Theresa May’s deal and they are not prepared to repeat that mistake.

But if a deal can’t be done, and the 31st October deadline is to be kept, the only option that will deliver Brexit is to prepare the country for a potential no deal.

Despite all the rhetoric, none of the candidates seriously want this outcome.

Boris Johnson has suggested that in such a scenario the EU would agree to a standstill trade deal with the UK.

In theory that would be the best outcome for the UK, as the EU would not have any of its concerns addressed (budget payment, Irish border, citizens’ rights) but the UK would get exactly what it wants. (Trade access on current terms).

That is why it is attractive to promote it domestically, however there is no chance that the EU would agree to it, and it needs EU approval, the UK can’t do it unilaterally.

The EU would not give up its key interests to avoid a “no deal.” In such a scenario the main elements of the withdrawal deal (budget payments, citizens’ rights and the Irish border) would still need to be negotiated before any subsequent deal could be agreed, but the UK would now be negotiating from a position of relative weakness outside of the EU.

Far more importantly, and the biggest problem is that the EU knows there is no majority for “no deal” in Westminster. Therefore, if a government truly wants to go through with it, they would first have to weather an unprecedented constitutional crisis which would sap most of the government’s energy and authority even before it had to deal with the ramifications of a no deal on the economy.

Threatening no deal is therefore not going to ensure the UK leaves the EU by the end of October. In fact, by entrenching positions on all sides, it is far more likely to do the opposite.

It hardens positions and that makes it far less likely that any new deal could go through Parliament. By offering hope to Brexit supporters that a no deal is possible in this parliament, it encourages many to hold out for that, rather than back a deal, which by definition will keep the UK closer to the EU than a no deal Brexit.

But it is a mirage. It cannot be delivered with the current make-up of the House of Commons without a constitutional crisis and quite possibly the fall of the government. This leaves us stuck, whoever is Prime Minister.

JH

People want to hear that the UK will leave on the 31st October. They are frankly fed up of Brexit and want someone to ensure that it will all be over by then. But the reality, and the truth that very few seem to be prepared to speak, is that there is little chance, without truly skilled negotiation or a clear Conservative victory, that the UK will leave on the 31st October.

That is the reality, and if it is not managed correctly it will destroy the Conservative party. 9% in a European election could become 15% in a general election and a repeat of the wipe-out the Canadian conservatives experienced in the mid-1990s.

It is therefore, in my opinion, absolutely vital that both candidates avoid making the same mistake that Theresa May did. She promised a leaving date that, without a majority in Parliament, was never in her gift to deliver.

Firstly, it forced her to accept a withdrawal deal at the last minute which was far too skewed towards the EU, even though the negotiations could have lasted longer and the UK could have got a better deal.

The deal that was agreed was then impossible to get though a Parliament where the conservatives did not have a majority. That same parliament blocked no deal meaning the Prime Minister had no choice but to request an extension.

Given those constraints, Theresa May did everything she possibly could to get Brexit over the line by March 29th, but ultimately others let her down. In this case it was the EU and Labour Party, neither of whom are particularly concerned about the potential demise of the Conservative Party.

Those same organisations stand in the way of the UK leaving on the 31st October. A “no deal” will certainly be blocked unless the government takes unprecedented action that poses grave risks to both our constitution and the unity of the Conservative Party.

The “deal” agreed by Theresa May is also dead, but one without the backstop, or with changes to it that make it much more acceptable is possible before the 31st October. But it needs an approach which will take the whole party with it and which the EU believes can get though Westminster.

Otherwise, despite the rhetoric from the candidates, the UK will not leave the EU at all, with potentially dire consequences for the Conservative Party and trust in politics amongst the 17.4 million people who voted to leave.

For those reasons, of the two candidates it appears Boris Johnson’s approach is less likely to lead to Brexit than Jeremy Hunt’s. Mr Johnson’s rhetoric may be tougher, but contains an empty threat because of the unusual vice that the government finds itself. He risks falling into the same trap as Theresa May by making promises which the parliamentary arithmetic means he can’t deliver.

All Conservatives agree that we have to deliver Brexit before the next general election, but to actually do it will need considerable skill, compromise and flexibility.

Of the two candidates in front of us, I have gradually come to the conclusion that Jeremy Hunt is the one more likely to do that. I do not say that lightly. I started this campaign as a Boris Johnson supporter, and he has many qualities, but having worked in Brussels throughout the Brexit negotiations, I just do not see how his strategy can work, whereas Jeremy Hunt’s might.