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Analysis

Boris Johnson still stuck in fantasy land

by Hugo Dixon | 10.12.2018

Boris Johnson doesn’t want Theresa May’s deal or no deal. He wants a unicorn. Same goes for the prime minister’s other rivals. The only viable option is a People’s Vote.

Even if the prime minister is replaced, it won’t change the EU’s negotiating position or the parliamentary arithmetic. These are two realities putative successors will have to take into account.

Johnson is still living in fantasy land. He told the Andrew Marr Show yesterday that he doesn’t want the deal, because of what he rightly describes as the “diabolical” backstop. But he doesn’t want no deal either, saying: “I don’t want no deal. I don’t want no deal. I want to be very, very clear about this, I don’t want no deal.”

But what does he want? The answer is to hold back at least half the agreed divorce fee until the EU gives us the sort of trade deal he wants (excluding that backstop). This is tantamount to saying that he wants to threaten the EU with no deal to get it to agree terms. This isn’t just a hopeless negotiating tactic given that we need the bloc more than it needs us; Parliament would never let a government pursue it.

But it’s not just the hard Brexit wing of the Tory party that’s living in fantasy land. The soft Brexiters are in fantasy land too with their “Norway Plus” scheme. The idea that we can solve the Irish border problem by merely staying in the single market is nonsense, as a report from the People’s Vote showed last week.

We’d also have to sign up to free movement, budget payments and something like the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies, as well as the customs union. There’s little wrong with this – except that we would be a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker. No patriot could embrace that.

The most prominent Conservative to float the Norway Plus idea is Amber Rudd, another potential candidate to take over if May quits. But the work and pensions secretary at least had the honesty to tell The Times at the weekend that “nobody knows if it can be done”. She also didn’t rule out a new public vote, saying “I can’t understand the hysteria around a People’s Vote if you believe in what you are trying to propose.”

Two of her Cabinet colleagues, David Lidington and David Gauke, have already concluded that the People’s Vote will be the horse to back if the prime minister’s deal is defeated, according to a report in the Sunday Times. This is because Labour won’t support Norway Plus, meaning there’s no way to get a majority in Parliament.

Civil servants have also war-gamed two versions of such a vote – one a straight choice between May’s deal and staying in the EU; the other between staying and leaving, and then a further choice between the deal and leaving with no deal if voters say they want to leave.

It’s good to hear that some people in government are starting to face the facts. The time for fantasy is over.

This column was updated to remove reference to the vote in Parliament originally scheduled for tomorrow

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “Boris Johnson still stuck in fantasy land”

  • Call me stupid but I just don’t get a clear message from Labour. I understand all the parts about rebuilding Britain, providing much needed accommodation, fair wages, a sensible energy policy and on and on but… Here’s the rub. How do they plan to accomplish this with a bankrupt economy and many businesses leaving the sinking ship?

    Is Corbyn playing the long shot game or some other game that he has not made clear up ’til now? What’s up with Labour? How can we support them when we don’t know what they intend to do?

  • I imagine there is passionate argument going on in Jeremy Corbyn’s office between his close advisers on the one hand (Carie Murphy and Seumas Milne who are both Lexiteers) and everyone else on the other. Jeremy just waits it out, so all we get is silence.

  • It is not at all good news that civil servants are considering a two-stage referendum in which the first stage would be leave versus remain. This would repeat the mistake of the first referendum in cobbling together a fake leave majority of contradictory views, something now faithfully reflected in the parliamentary deadlock. The two-stage referendum would potentially put together these disparate leave voters in order to rule out remain, leaving only a choice of two bad alternatives each with less support than remain. In Facts should strongly oppose this chicanery. Justine Greening’s proposed STV referendum would be much fairer.

  • The UK stake in the EIB is worth around 40m Euros. So it becomes very simple for them to insist on payment. They just go to their own bank. As ex Foreign Secretary, Mr Johnson knows this as well as I do so he is deliberately peddling false options.