Boris Johnson has been prime minister less than four weeks. In the absence of parliament, he has made a spirited attempt to pretend that British exit from the European Union would be straightforward. Brexit will definitely take place on 31 October, he has insisted. It will either involve the EU abandoning the Irish backstop or there will be no deal. The difference scarcely matters to Mr Johnson, who insists Brexit will be a trouble-free exercise in whatever form it comes, whose dangers have been exaggerated and whose rewards underestimated.
Every bit of this was false when Mr Johnson first concocted it. It is even more threadbare now – and getting more dangerous by the day. However, we may now be witnessing the first faint wisps of recognition from within the government that things are not going to work out as they pretend.
Cabinet Office documents on the likely aftershocks of a no-deal Brexit were leaked at the weekend. They covered every aspect of public policy. They are devastating. All of the impacts are bad; some are likely to be enduringly so. But the Johnson government’s response to the leak was telling. Ministers focused on issues of process, not on the documents’ substance.
This is a classic diversion tactic. The Operation Yellowhammer documents show that no deal will have consequences far beyond the “bumps in the road” of which ministers speak so complacently. Those so-called bumps include: the return of a hard border in Ireland; months of logjams at Channel ports; disruption of fresh food, medicines and fuel supplies; delays at airports; clashes at sea between UK and EU fishing boats; severe restrictions on Gibraltar’s frontier with Spain; insupportable strain on parts of the care system; exceptional demands on UK embassies from expats; and protests requiring extra police. One almost throwaway line observes that “low-income groups will be disproportionately affected” by price rises. To these can now be added the inhuman shambles that would follow the ending of freedom of movement on 31 October, another Windrush in the making, and on an immensely larger scale.
Mr Johnson’s response is not to engage directly with these appalling possibilities. Instead he reiterated in Truro on Monday that the EU will shift its backstop position and let him off the hook. In other words, he recognises that a deal is better than no deal, but still pretends, against all evidence, that the EU will abandon a central part of the withdrawal agreement. This too is a fantasy. Yet it shows that striking a deal – if it can be done – is preferable to crashing out. Mr Johnson will have to be a lot more honest when he meets German and French leaders this week if he wishes to have even a marginal hope of making one.
But European leaders face questions too. They may think, as many in the UK also hope, that the combination of Johnsonian bluster and the parliamentary arithmetic on no deal means that the prime minister’s reign will soon be aborted. They may think, as some here also do, that Mr Johnson’s government will soon be replaced by a one opposed to no deal. But they need to be careful. Neither of these outcomes may happen before 31 October. Neither of them may happen at all.
The dangerous recklessness on the leave side of Britain’s Brexit divide is matched by a worrying haplessness on the remain side. The divisions between remainers and anti-no-dealers, and between the parties within the anti-no-deal majority, remain frustratingly strong. Jeremy Corbyn plays a part in many of these divides, but he also has to be part of any solution. His speech in Corby on Monday, in which he proposed a vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson’s government followed by a time-limited caretaker administration that would avert no deal and call an election, should be taken seriously, not dismissed.
Mr Corbyn’s speech is not the last word on the issues. His proposed caretaker administration might, for instance, involve other parties. But the importance of avoiding no deal is immense and pressing. All opponents of such a cataclysm should be ready to do whatever it takes.