Boris Johnson's High-Risk Maneuver
San Francisco / July 30, 2019
The outlines of Boris Johnson's strategy on Brexit are becoming clearer. He promises to leave the European Union by 31 October, do or die. Johnson wants to modify the Withdrawal Agreement and replace the Irish backstop. If the European Union does not modify the backstop, Johnson threatens to leave with no-deal.
Unfortunately for Johnson, there is significant opposition to a no-deal Brexit. Many political moderates who voted Leave during the 2016 referendum do not support a no-deal. They think a no-deal is extreme. It might have been acceptable for Theresa May to threaten the EU with a no-deal to obtain better provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement. But many political moderates don't want to execute on a no-deal.
The EU has picked up on that hesitation. In public, Michel Barnier and Leo Varadkar do not believe the UK will leave via a no-deal. Barnier and Varadkar think Parliament will block a no-deal. In response, Johnson and his team are considering triggering a snap election or general election before 31 October to win the necessary support for a no-deal. If Johnson triggers an election, the timing will be very risky. Because of the mechanics of British politics, the election would happen a few weeks before the 31 October deadline.
Johnson is now campaigning around the country to rally support for leaving on 31 October. He wants to show that he would dominate in an early election and thereby convince his opponents not to "force" him into triggering an election. This is a very risky strategy in a political and cultural climate where most politicians feel forced to publicly posture to satisfy their electorate. The way this is developing, Johnson will trigger an early election.
Instead of focusing on winning an unnecessary and divisive election, Johnson and his team should focus on modifying the Withdrawal Agreement. Threatening the EU with a no-deal is not the only leverage. The EU has expressed a desire to move on from Brexit. Suppose Parliament blocks a no-deal on 31 October. Then what happens? Does the EU grant another endless extension?
Johnson should respectfully ask Varadkar and other key decision makers in the EU to change the Withdrawal Agreement so it can pass the House of Commons. Johnson also has more credibility with conservative MPs than Theresa May. Suppose Boris Johnson and Theresa May attempt to push the same motion to leave the EU through Commons. At the margins, Johnson has a higher chance of success.
Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Matthew Elliott, and the Vote Leave gang should drop the obsession with triggering an early election.