Wednesday 9 December 2020

Playing by the rules


The element of drama about Boris Johnson’s last-ditch flight to Brussels today is almost certainly deliberate on his part. From the EU’s perspective, it’s more about tolerating whatever it takes to get the PM to realise where the power lies and to enable him to present anything he comes back with as some sort of victory. They can live with the drama and the hyperbole as long as they get their legally-binding text. Part of the drama, of course, has to be the uncertainty – ‘will he, won’t he’ – as to the outcome; it wouldn’t be drama otherwise. The pundits are divided, and that helps as well. Not knowing what will emerge (although we already know that there will be major obstacles to free trade after January 1, whatever the result) is a necessary part of the process.

What is more worrying, though, is the undertainty about whether the lead actor himself has a clue about the likely outcome. The script is largely in his hands at this stage, and given his history, it would not be at all surprising if he’d already scripted two alternative endings: one in which he heroically pulls off a deal at the last moment and the other in which he heroically battles to the last before walking away with nothing rather than surrendering to mere foreigners. In itself, that might not be of great concern. Without knowing what ‘the other side’ might offer, it might even be prudent to have a Plan A and a Plan B. The problem in this case is that he knows more or less exactly what the other side is going to say; they’ve been round and round the same issues for months, and whilst the EU might be willing to be flexible over the wording, the substance isn’t going to change. They are not (and never were) going to dismantle the single market to suit the UK’s exceptionalists. The decision as to which script to use doesn’t depend on anything that does or does not happen in Brussels tonight. Just like the last time he prepared two scripts and didn’t decide which one to use until the last minute, it depends on which script he thinks places him in the best light, and which will be least likely to hasten the end of his premiership. It is, as ever, all about him – he’s not described as a narcissist without reason. Not for the first time, the future of the whole UK’s population hangs on what Boris Johnson thinks is best for Boris Johnson.

As part of the build up to tonight’s crunch meeting, he said that “You've got to believe there's the power of sweet reason”. He’s not wrong in principle, but there are some people for whom ‘sweet reason’ is not an operational concept – and Boris Johnson is one of them. The thought that anything depends on a combination of Boris Johnson and sweet reason merely brought the immortal words to Private Frazer to mind – “We’re all doomed”. He has also ruled out any possibility of talks continuing after 1 January in the event of no deal. It’s another lie, of course. Faced with trading on WTO terms, no sensible government would ever decline to talk with trading partners about how those terms could be improved, although such a conversation is likely to take many years, as is entirely normal for trade agreements.

And talking of sensible governments, one of his other statements was this: “… there are just limits beyond which no sensible, independent government or country could go and people have got to understand that". Well, as a statement of principle, he’s entirely correct. But one might, perhaps, be forgiven for asking whether he didn’t just say that the 27 member states of the EU are neither sensible nor independent? The question as to whether an EU member state is or isn’t ‘independent’ does go to the heart of the Brexit debate and the meaning of the word independent, so that might be overlooked as simply an expression of an absolutist position on sovereignty. It’s doubtful, though, whether stating that 27 other countries are not being sensible is a particularly helpful negotiating ploy. In truth, the EU have recognised from the outset that the UK can have as much sovereignty as it wants, and can set its own rules on anything and everything. The problem has been that the UK has been unwilling to accept the corollary, which is that those who want to play the game by a different set of rules to everyone else will usually find they’re no longer invited to play.

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