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Ivan Rogers is wrong about Boris Johnson

26 November 2019

3:30 PM

26 November 2019

3:30 PM

Sir Ivan Rogers missed his calling. Our former envoy to the EU would have made a fine newspaper columnist, albeit one who struggled to file to length. His ability to capture the big issues of the Brexit process and make a compelling argument about what happens next is quite something, and explains why a Rogers intervention always gets people talking.

His latest contribution is a long speech arguing that Boris Johnson is heading for a fall in late 2020 when the UK’s Brexit transition period ends and the country faces three options:

1) Conclude a trade deal with the EU
2) Fully leave the EU without a deal
3) Contrive a way to extend the transition and keep talking about a deal.

Rogers dismisses option 3) and argues that the real choice will therefore be between a) a thin, harmful trade deal tipped heavily in the EU’s favour, and b) the no-deal Brexit that has so animated politics this year.

I have nothing to say about Rogers’ analysis of the UK-EU dynamic next year, or his assessment of outcomes a) and b) – the man knows his stuff, after all.

But I do have to quibble with his assessment of the domestic politics and the room for manoeuvre available to a re-elected Prime Minister Johnson. Could he break his explicit manifesto promise not to extend the transition period next year? I think Rogers is not so much underestimating Johnson’s willingness to break promises but overestimating the costs he would face from doing so.

In the Rogers’ analysis, the re-elected PM would be under the thumb of Tory hardliners:

‘He further knows that the Right, which will have been strengthened inside his Party if he has won the election, will decry an extension as an intolerable prolongation of vassalage.’

I don’t think this is true. I think it fails to take account of two things. First, if Johnson wins the 2019 general election with a solid majority, he will have done something really quite remarkable. His party has only won a majority once since 1992. To pull off that feat after almost a decade in office (and a decade that featured austerity and the Brexit rupture) would be really quite something. It would also be a very personal vindication for Johnson, who has repeatedly been told that doing so is impossible and whose persona is central to the Tory election offer.

Put simply, if Boris Johnson wins a majority in December and legally ends Britain’s EU membership in early 2019, the Conservative Party is his to do with as he will. The idea that he would in such circumstances feel beholden to Steve Baker or obliged to take dictation from Jacob Rees-Mogg is for the birds. If he wins, he calls the shots, for good or ill.

I also think Rogers misreads – or rather, fails to fully consider – public opinion. In the Rogers reading of recent history, it was relatively easy for Johnson to repackage a worse variant of Theresa May’s deal as a negotiating triumph:

‘All he has sacrificed to get there via his Irish Sea border pivot, the clear consequences of which he now denies, is the explicit support of the DUP, whose support he will anyway not need if he wins the election.’

Rogers is right about the process but wrong about the politics. Actually, doing that Brexit deal – in reality, a British retreat from the ground May captured – was a much bigger risk for Johnson, since it involved breaking a very clear promise not to extend membership beyond 31 October. Remember ‘dead in a ditch’?

An awful lot of voters heard that promise and quite a lot, especially on the Leave side, believed him. Yet if Johnson is re-elected, those voters will have dutifully voted for him on 12 December.

What does that tell us about public opinion and Brexit? My theory is that for all the noise and anger, a lot of voters don’t really care that deeply about Brexit, or at least about the details and the process. After all, it is in reality a distant and abstract thing that does not materially affect their lives, at least in any obvious or tangible fashion: whose life was different on 1 November because the UK remained an EU member?

And in the Rogers scenario where Johnson returns and ends our EU membership in Q1 2020, the salience of Brexit will drop, possibly far and fast. We’ll have the symbolism of EU flags being struck, blanket media coverage of the moment and then… what? Trade talks, or possibly talks about trade talks.

To a great many people, Brexit will indeed have been ‘done’, at least in terms that matter to them. In terms of policy and process, Rogers is absolutely right that Brexit will not in any way be ‘done’ then. But politically? I think that could be a very different matter.

Think about the domestic political scene in autumn 2020 in this scenario. Johnson is governing at the head of a relatively happy and united Conservative Party that repeatedly tells voters it is delivering on promises of a better-funded NHS and more bobbies on the beat. Those claims are contested, of course, but mainly by an opposition Labour Party that has still not stabilised after another election loss and the departure of Jeremy Corbyn.

The domestic politics of Brexit have been changed significantly. Now that Britain has left, ‘Remain’ is dead as a political argument. ‘Rejoin’ is its logical successor, but how much support will that have? It’s certainly hard to see any post-Corbyn Labour Party trying to make ‘Apply to Rejoin the EU’ its central message. Nor do I see a grassroots campaign rising from the ashes of the People’s Vote.

With ‘Brexit’ falling down the agenda and an opposition in disarray, would it really be beyond a re-elected Prime Minister Johnson to sell an extension to an interminable, technical and fundamentally boring negotiation?

This year, voters and the Conservative Party have allowed Boris Johnson to retreat over Brexit and break his promises over Brexit. In the scenario where he is re-elected next month, they will reward and thank him for doing so, confirming that neither of them really cared all that much about the fine details. If such a thing comes to pass, he will have much more scope to break more such promises than the Rogers analysis suggests.


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