17 September 2019, The Tablet

Will the emperor be found to have no clothes?


I am now fairly sure that Brexit will not happen. There is no conceivable route on the map that I can see, from here to there

Will the emperor be found to have no clothes?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, inside Le Bouquet Garni restaurant in Luxembourg
Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

What explains the credibility gap? Boris Johnson tells us he has high hopes of striking a deal with the European Union before October 31, and intensive detailed work is in progress towards that end. Leaders of the EU tell us, on the other hand, that the chances of a deal are slim to non-existent, and no concrete proposals have yet been received from the British Government so how can anybody be working on the details?

Is this discrepancy mere "expectation management", one of the black arts of political spin-doctoring, so that when a result finally arrives - or doesn't - things are not quite as good as bad as people had been led to expect? Or are we just being lied to? To use a term of the moment, are we being played?

The Johnson camp's tactics could be described as trying to build political momentum so that politicians on both sides in the Brexit process are carried along towards accepting a deal, like an individual being pushed by a crowd. In such circumstances picking holes in such a deal would be more difficult, and the temptation would be strong to swallow one's misgivings and sign up.

So my guess would be that Mr Johnson's plan, whatever it is, has not really solved the complex difficulties concerning the Irish border, but the climate of expectation he has created is such that, he hopes, almost nobody would dare to point out that the emperor has no clothes. In other words we will be invited to join him in pretending it has been solved.

And, believe it or not, that may be enough for his purposes. He can say to the public "Look, I got you a good deal. I kept my side of the bargain." But there is a snag. This may satisfy his major constituency, the one that elected him, namely the Conservative Party. But will it satisfy the rest of the House of Commons, including Labour which is in the process of moving towards a more anti-Brexit position than ever? It will not. And will it satisfy the European Union? Its bureaucrats will see this as a confidence trick, so again, no. But he has set up these nay-sayers so he can call them saboteurs or enemies of the people, hence failure to deliver is not his fault. There may be some political credit in that, but not much.

So what happens then? If he is unable to sell his pretend-deal to the European Union or to the House of Commons, then the law kicks in and tells him what to do next. He has to apply to the EU for a three month extension of the Brexit deadline. He has said so many times that he will not do so that he has left himself little choice but to resign. If he did not, I suspect the Queen would dismiss him; and a discreet warning that this is about to happen would no doubt reach him beforehand, to give him a chance to save her the bother.

Either way we then have a change of Prime Minister and an extended Brexit deadline, but the rest of the crystal glass is cloudy. My guess would be that he would nominate his successor and it would be Michael Gove, who would then try to put together a minority Government. His opponents in Parliament would then have the dubious pleasure of taunting and teasing a Government that was in office but not in power, while behind the scenes a new chapter in the internal Tory civil war over Brexit would be unfolding. But my powers of prediction stretch no further. Except for this - I am now fairly sure that Brexit will not happen. There is no conceivable route on the map that I can see, from here to there. And ten years on, people will have forgotten what the fuss was about.




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