Luke McGee is a senior producer at CNN based in London.
The feared chaos of a no-deal Brexit is suddenly a lot more likely. At least, that’s how things seem as week one of the battle to replace Theresa May as the UK’s prime minister comes to an end. But some in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, are not so sure things are all that bad.
Boris Johnson, the frontrunner in the contest to lead the governing Conservative party, launched his campaign on Wednesday. And in his pitch to the party faithful, he committed to taking the UK out of the EU on October 31, no matter if a deal is in place with Europe or not.
In Brussels, there’s a grudging acceptance that the man who led the Brexit campaign and who talks openly about leaving without a deal is who they’ll now have to negotiate with.
If the EU is taken at its word, the deal that Theresa May struck with Brussels last year remains the only deal on the table. Therefore, Johnson’s claim that he will reopen negotiations and secure changes to the Withdrawal Agreement (the formal name for May’s deal) are based more on hope than fact.
And taken at his word, if Johnson cannot secure these changes then the UK will simply crash out at the end of October – the next Brexit deadline.
So why are things not all that bad? Over two years, EU officials watched the UK rub out red line after red line. Talking a big game on Brexit from London is easy. But when it’s your neck on the line, things look somewhat different.
The quiet suspicion among some EU types is that when the crunch comes, Johnson’s political ambition might kick in as the deadline looms. “When it comes down to it, does Boris, a man who has spent his entire career getting ready for this moment, want to be the shortest-serving prime minister in history? Because that’s what will happen if he drags the UK off a cliff and there are no avocados in the shops and no medicine in hospitals,” said one EU source with direct knowledge of private conversations taking place between EU officials.
There might have been some clues in Johnson’s campaign launch speech. While he committed to leaving the EU at the next deadline and under no circumstances requesting a further extension, he also said unequivocally that a no-deal Brexit was not what he wanted.
Tie these threads together, and it suddenly seems plausible that Johnson could end up trying to sell Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement to lawmakers in London, come autumn.
How might this work? The Brexit deal, as it’s commonly known, consists of two parts. First, the Withdrawal Agreement, which allows the UK to leave with no immediate consequences. Second, the Political Declaration, which outlines the intentions of both sides as they enter negotiations about the future relationship.
The Withdrawal Agreement contains a section called the Northern Ireland backstop, which, without getting into too much detail, is designed to prevent the return of border infrastructure at the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It’s been the key sticking point for Conservative Brexiteers, as it has no end point, and they say it effectively ties the UK to remaining in the EU in all but name.
Johnson claims he can change the backstop; the EU says he can’t. But he might be able to get further commitments in the Political Declaration that he could present as a huge victory to lawmakers in the UK.
Why would Johnson triumph where May failed? Two reasons.
First, he is far more popular among Conservatives than May. One of the biggest concerns Brexiteers had was May being in charge of the second round of talks, given the concessions she made in round one. These were her concessions, not Johnson’s. And they are more likely to trust him to hold a hard line in round two.
Second, it cannot be overstated exactly how sick the EU is of Brexit. European diplomatic sources say that there is increasing support among the other 27 EU member states for Emmanuel Macron’s view that a no-deal outcome isn’t as bad as the ongoing uncertainty. They want Brexit over and done with, but don’t want to throw Ireland, the country that a no deal would most affect other than the UK, under the bus.
This means that a few concessions to help the man they loathe get a deal over the line and finally be shot of this mess might not be the worst price to pay.
Should this happen, the politics of it would be very messy. Johnson, the darling of the Brexiteers, will try forcing a deal through parliament that he effectively quit May’s government over. And if he fails to get a new deal approved, then it comes back to no deal or requesting a further extension.
All three outcomes – deal, extension, no deal – could spell the end of a Johnson premiership merely months after the 54-year-old finally achieves his dream of calling 10 Downing Street home.
But this kind of brinkmanship, high-risk politics has defined the Brexit crisis ever since the Brexit vote, three years ago this month. There’s no reason that should change now.