Boris now faces a terrible choice over Brexit

21 December 2020

11:53 PM

21 December 2020

11:53 PM

Ten thousand lorries usually travel through the port of Dover in the run-up to Christmas. Now, Dover is completely shut. Over the weekend, this crucial supply chain into Britain has stopped. In the coming days, as Brits stock up ahead of Christmas, there is likely to be some pressure on UK supply chains. And as James Forsyth writes on Coffee House, the coming weeks will inevitably mean a crisis for Britain. As such, it begs the question: can Boris really go for a no-deal Brexit now? Can he go through with it at a time when political crises are piling one on top of each other?

Despite the potential risk, I’m still convinced he will. Why? Because the EU knows that Britain is under particularly acute pressure right now. It is fighting difficult battles on a number of fronts. And this means that it’s very unlikely Brussels will ‘fold’ in any significant sense in Brexit talks. Tory MPs won’t like it but the reality is that the deal isn’t going to get a whole lot better from the UK’s perspective from here. There might be tiny movement on fishing numbers from the EU side; even that I wouldn’t be totally sure about.

In other words, the deal on the table now isthe deal. Given that, how can Boris cave into the EU this late in the day? To capitulate to the EU at the last possible moment would be politically terrible for Boris; I will go as far as to say I think it would ruin his standing within the party irreparably. The line from Brexiteers, both inside and outside the Conservative party, would be that finally faced with the last customs post before a clean Brexit, Boris lost his bottle. Nigel Farage’s reaction is entirely predictable – but it could give the Brexit party a devastating new impetus at the expense of the Tories.

Boris can, of course, try and use the current crisis as an excuse. The problem with that manoeuvre is the very people who are most likely to feel aggrieved by a fold to the EU’s demands are likely to be the same portion of the electorate who feel the risk from Covid has been overhyped. What’s on the line here for Boris is losing the group of voters who were necessary to getting a majority last December, in a way that may be permanent.

Johnson has pushed the negotiations to the last moment only to find himself in a situation that has left him with no negotiating position to stand upon. The EU knows the UK is in dire trouble. It is also in the midst of having its necessity to the UK’s supply chains aptly demonstrated.

As a result of all this, Boris is now in a take-it-or-leave-it situation with the European Union. The choice in front of him is terrible. Either fold and sign up to a thin deal that will only minimally curb disruption, along the way emboldening Farage’s position greatly and destroying any remaining capital he has within his own party – or taking us over a cliff edge at the worst imaginable time, deepening a crisis for which he will get almost sole blame for having created.

One thing is certain: the Prime Minister has to make a choice either way very soon. Last week, some Tory MPs told me that Boris might take things down to the wire, coming to an agreement with the EU on 31 December. Doing so would be a big mistake. If he went for no deal at that moment, it would look like we just fell out of the transition period by accident, by dint of sheer incompetence. It is the weakest possible way that Boris could have gone for no deal I can conceive of, undercutting any political upside it might have netted him with certain audiences.

On the other hand, to agree a thin deal with the EU on their terms the day before the transition period ends will look like surrender. I don’t see any way that Johnson would be able to sell it to the country as any sort of a victory. Remainers, Leavers and anyone in between will dislike the whole thing, all for different reasons.

Many are assuming that, because of the current crisis, Boris Johnson can’t possibly go through with a no-deal Brexit now. That is to underestimate the depth of the hole the Prime Minister has dug for himself. Like it or loathe it, no deal is still the most likely outcome and either way, Boris needs to make a decision in the next 24 hours. The country cannot afford to wait any longer to know what fate awaits us.

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