The last four Conservative Prime Ministers all tried, and failed, to unite their party behind a common policy on the EU. As they were toppled by the European question, so Brexit will make or break Boris Johnson’s premiership: he may put the question to bed once and for all, or he may end up as the fifth casualty of the perpetual Tory European existential crisis.
Theresa May made the mistake of seeking an electoral mandate for her Brexit policy before she had announced what it was and allowing herself to become beholden to the whims of a small minority of the parliamentary Conservative Party. David Cameron before her signed his career’s death certificate by offering the country a blank cheque on the EU.
Johnson has avoided both of these pitfalls by campaigning on the basis of an “oven-ready deal.” Easy peasy lemon squeezy, deal through. That, though, is just the first hurdle. It only seems more significant than it is because we as a nation have spent years glitching in front of it.
The next stage is when things will become difficult difficult lemon difficult for the Prime Minister. The crucial future trade relationship talks which are due to take place this year have been discussed with worrying vagueness and brevity by Conservatives, who refuse to offer any detail relating to how they plan to approach these negotiations whatsoever. They speak in wistful, hopeful tones, but are horrifically reluctant to offer any true insight.
Even if the Tories had a clear-cut, rock-solid plan for how to go about this, as things stand, the timetable simply cannot be met, and something will have to give. While the date of our exit from the EU has been pushed back further and further, the end of the transition period—and the deadline for the conclusion of those all-important trade discussions—has stood firm at 31 December 2020.
That leaves the Johnson government with less than a year to conjure up a free trade agreement between the world’s fifth-largest economy and the and the world’s single largest trading bloc, from scratch. No international trade deal has ever been reached in anything like that timespan, let alone such a pivotal and indeed colossal one as this.
What’s more, this hypothetical deal also carries with it wildly disproportionate political significance. If anyone so much as utters the letters N, H or S during the negotiations, Keir Starmer and John McDonnell will leap out from under the negotiating table and scream Betrayal! at the tops of their voices, petrifying all present.
At the end of this year, then, Johnson will be facing something of a Sophist’s Choice. As Christmas creeps closer, it will become inescapably clear that his promises cannot be fulfilled in the given timeframe. What then? On the one hand, he could take the plunge and plump for a sort of No Deal-lite WTO situation in which the transition period termination date remains unchanged and we leave the EU in practice despite not having future trade provisions in place.
Given the voraciousness with which Johnson has made pledge after pledge about our bright post-Brexit future and dismissed any and all questions about the feasibility of his plans, despite what he may be saying now to stoke the Tory base, this does not seem to be an option.
It would certainly keep the Brexiteer ERG happy, but the much larger One Nation branch of the Conservative Party, whose values Johnson loudly claims to espouse, simply would not stand for what would be widely portrayed as a deferred No Deal Brexit.
Perhaps his only option, then, is to elongate the transition period and make room for a more realistic time period to complete construction of the trade bridge across the river Brexit before we begin trundling across it. This, though, will be ruthlessly portrayed by hardline Leavers as yet another betrayal of the holy Brexit mandate.
At the moment, Johnson has as close to a pristine reputation as he could hope for as a fighter of the good Brexit fight. But if he goes out of his way to ‘dither and delay’ our material exit from the EU, prominent ERG deontologists like Steve Baker and Mark Francois are unlikely to take kindly to his newly pragmatic stance. He may even face Brexiteer Cabinet resignations; Priti Patel and Andrea Leadsom could be ones to watch.
Johnson will suddenly find himself on the same side of the debate as Remainers, who will be crowing yet again about the unimaginable horrors of a WTO Brexit, with Oliver Twist-style children begging for scraps at the sides of roads clogged with seas of stationary lorries.
In logistical terms, of course, the large Conservative majority means that this is unlikely to pose any direct parliamentary difficulties. Johnson will be able to force through his delay and bypass the shrieks of the ERG in ways Theresa May could only dream off. But he will, crucially, be betraying the trust of those who elevated him to the party leadership.
The Conservative Party is a long way off settling its position on the indefatigable European question, let alone beginning to heal the divisions caused by Brexit in the country at large.