Boris Johnson is telling Britain to prepare to become Australia. By this, he does not mean that we can look forward to moving to the southern hemisphere in time for a sunkissed Christmas and barbecued turkey on Bondi beach. He means that he is threatening to make a Covid-bleak winter even darker. When he talks about an “Australian-type” future for the UK, that is a euphemism for the total failure of the negotiations with the EU and Britain crashing out of the single market without any substitute trade agreement at the end of the year.
The most fanatically Brexity people around the prime minister will be entirely relaxed – delighted even – if that is the outcome. A nightmare for many, it is a dream for them. They smack their lips at the thought of the hardest of hard Brexits. As one senior Tory puts it: “Boris will have Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain in his ear saying, ‘Let’s stick it to the EU and celebrate by sinking a bunch of French fishing boats on New Year’s Day’.” Similar sentiments – let’s just blow the whole thing up – can be found among Brextremist Tory MPs in the Commons.
Fortunately for Britain, these are not the only voices in the prime minister’s ear. There are some more rational people in government, people who live in the real world, rather than a fantasy-based universe, and they are increasingly terrorised by the prospect of a crash-out at the end of December. Those who are acutely anxious about this outcome include key players in the cabinet.
Boris will have Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain in his ear saying, ‘Let’s stick it to the EU and celebrate by sinking a bunch of French fishing boats on New Year’s day.’
Colleagues of Michael Gove report that he has become steadily more alarmed about how badly Britain will suffer. Beef and lamb farmers would face tariffs of 40% to 100%, which would put many of them out of business. Car manufacturers would be confronted with export duties of 10%, which would make the viability of some of their factories highly doubtful. As the minister with chief responsibility for no-deal contingency planning, Mr Gove knows better than most what it would mean. The government’s own “reasonable worst case scenario” suggests that up to 70% of lorries travelling to the EU might not be ready for new customs checks and the flow rate across the Channel via Dover and Eurotunnel could be cut by up to 80%. Huge waves of disruption would engulf vital commerce in mid-winter, a season when Britain is particularly dependent on food imports from the continent, delivered on a just-in-time basis.
I’m told that Mr Gove recently made a formal submission to the Treasury detailing how much additional money would be required to try to mitigate the immediate impact of a crash-out Brexit. There would many large new expenses, from managing colossal congestion on the routes to Channel ports to laying on emergency air transport to try to ensure that supplies of life-critical drugs could get into Britain. The sum asked for by Mr Gove is described by those familiar with the submission as “eye-watering”. The size of the bill left the Treasury shocked. The chancellor, though, may be secretly pleased, may even have encouraged Mr Gove to deliver that warning about the punishing costs of a no-deal. Rishi Sunak was another enthusiast for Brexit, but he has become increasingly apprehensive about what a crash-out would do to an already virus-ravaged economy. The chancellor does not buy the argument, glibly fed to some rightwing commentators by the reckless tendency at Number 10, that the consequences of a no-deal can somehow be hidden from the public by blaming the resulting economic distress on the epidemic. The worst of the impact of the coronavirus has fallen on domestic service sectors such as hospitality and leisure. A no-deal Brexit would inflict its hardest hits on different areas: financial services and exporters, such as the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. The double whammy of a crash-out and the coronavirus would whack both faces of the economy at once, with awful consequences for business activity and unemployment.
The chancellor has other compelling reasons to fear a no-deal Brexit. He has already spent epic sums on schemes to alleviate the economic fallout of the epidemic. He is under pressure to offer more financial succour to people in the increasing number of cities and counties where Covid restrictions are being tightened and business activity suppressed in response to the second wave of infection. A crash-out would add another ocean of red ink to a national debt that is already soaring. So the chancellor is leading what one very well-informed source describes as a “no-deal is madness” group of cabinet ministers.
Add a catastrophe Brexit to a terrible virus and we will find ourselves in an even more disunited kingdom
On top of the dire economic consequences, a crash-out will amplify the forces pulling apart our stressed body politic. As I remarked last week, the sense of national solidarity that accompanied the first wave is breaking down. The response to the crisis is becoming fiercely recriminatory and rancorous. Add a catastrophe Brexit to a terrible virus and we will find ourselves in an even more disunited kingdom and quite possibly on the road to its terminal unravelling. With the most recent poll suggesting there is record support in Scotland for independence, the boost that a crash-out Brexit would give to the nationalist cause has many Tories fearful that it would sound the death knell of the United Kingdom. That is another spectre that haunts Mr Gove, himself a Scot.
Whether calamity can be averted will be greatly dependent on which aspect of the personality of Boris Johnson is dominant at the moment of ultimate decision. There is a dimension of the prime minister that still wants a success from the negotiations – or at least something that he can dress up for his supporters as a win. Someone who has sat in cabinet with Mr Johnson remarks: “If he doesn’t get some kind of deal, he will have failed and Boris doesn’t like being seen as a failure.” For sure, he would doubtless try to land the blame for a collapsed negotiation on the obduracy of perfidious continentals, but that would still leave him as the man who told the voters last December that he could “absolutely guarantee that we will get a deal” and that it would be a “fantastic” free trade agreement. However much energy he and elements of the rightwing media might put into bashing the EU, he’d still have to answer to his voters for why the supposedly “oven-ready deal” had been burnt to a crisp. I agree with those who suggest that it is probably easier politically for him to sell a deal as a great triumph (even if it isn’t) than it is for him to try to explain away why he hasn’t achieved one.
This leads many to believe that the grandstander attacking the EU is bluffing for the compromiser within who actually wants an agreement. For all his demands for a “fundamental change of approach” by the EU and for all the bluster that a crash-out could be a “good outcome”, he has not kicked over the table yet. Nothing said so far means that the prospects of a deal are definitively dead.
Yet the chances of a disastrous outcome are certainly rising. Optimistically imagine that the two sides can bridge the differences in their positions on regulatory standards, state aid, fisheries, and a disputes mechanism. Any agreement has to be turned into a legal text and then approved by all of the EU’s leaders and the European parliament. Most informed observers think that leaves a month at most to get to an agreement. “I did think it was 60/40 that a deal would be done. I’m now 55/45,” says a senior figure with many years of experience of EU negotiations. “It is only when leaders talk that things really happen because only they have the authority to make the big tradeoffs. The trouble is that there’s now so little time left for all the choreography to take place and all the details to be agreed.”
Tom Bower’s new biography reminds us that the prime minister is a chaotic personality who is terrible at meeting deadlines and a compulsively wild gambler who has often made a deliberate choice to dance with danger. He once said: “There comes a point where you’ve got to put the dynamite under your own tram tracks… derail yourself. See what happens.”
Even if we assume his latest threats to explode the negotiations with the EU are merely brinkmanship, they are still highly perilous. The trouble with brinkmanship is that sometimes, whether you really planned to or not, you end up tipping over the brink. This is a dance with danger on the edge of an abyss. It is a game only a very surefooted prime minister should be playing. And that we know Boris Johnson is not.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer