Theresa May’s Brexit strategy was to play chicken with parliament. Boris Johnson’s is to play chicken with the EU.
Theresa May believed that if she pressed on with her deal, parliament would – ultimately – blink and pass it. Her thinking was that MPs’ scared of no deal would vote for her deal to avoid that outcome. While Brexiteer MPs who didn’t like the deal, would back it in the end to be sure Britain did leave the EU.
May’s approach failed because she was trying to squeeze two groups simultaneously with two different messages. Crucially, she also blinked – she didn’t resist the Cooper, Letwin, Boles attempt to force her to seek an extension. If she had, she would have found out how many Labour MPs were prepared to vote for her deal to avoid no deal.
Boris Johnson’s strategy is to play chicken with the EU. He intends to put no deal firmly on the table, and then ask the EU for concessions. Even Johnson’s confidants accept that the EU’s initial response will likely be to call his bluff; they’ll want to see what parliament does in these circumstances.
But if the new administration can successfully resist any parliamentary attempt to force it to seek an extension, what would the EU do then? This is an intriguing question, and one which no one can be sure of the answer. We know that the EU don’t want no deal, but we also know that they won’t want to look like they have caved in or thrown Ireland under the bus.
So, the question becomes what proposal might they think would avoid no deal but not look like an EU climbdown or politically humiliate Leo Varadkar. One idea in that space is that the backstop would cease after several years if the trade negotiations between the UK and the EU had irrevocably broken down, but the UK would remain bound by its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. Varadkar could use the latter point to say that the UK will still have to find a way to avoid a border. While Boris Johnson could say the UK has always said it would stand by the Good Friday Agreement and that it doesn’t preclude an independent UK trade policy.
This would, obviously, be a bit of a fudge. Some of the harder-line Brexit types would not be pleased if this was enough to satisfy Boris Johnson. But getting a change to the backstop would, politically, allow him to declare victory and might give him enough momentum to get the deal through.