How seriously is Boris Johnson taking Brexit? Not very, is the view of a growing number of people.
From EU officials in Brussels to his political opposition in the UK, a sense is building that the British Prime Minister is treating Brexit as nothing more than a campaign issue for the “upcoming election,” as senior government sources are now describing it.
That sense was underscored this week, after the PM found himself embroiled in a row over the language he used in the House of Commons.
He dismissed concerns that his hardline Brexit rhetoric could incite violence against lawmakers as “humbug,” and he doubled down on his view that attempts from opposition MPs to prevent a no-deal Brexit amounted to “surrender.”
How did this go down in Brussels? “The populist language stuff and attacking female Labour MPs is not exactly helpful if your primary aim is to get a deal through Parliament, is it?” one EU source told CNN.
On Friday, the UK’s Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, went to Brussels to meet his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier. As with so many of the government’s meetings with EU officials, there were warm words, but nothing concrete.
The UK has also been sending proposals to Brussels on alternative arrangements to the deal that Johnson’s predecessor as PM, Theresa May, struck with the EU last year. These have also been met with polite smiles from Brussels. However, behind the smiles, frustration is turning to anger. “The papers they sent were empty. If he was serious, then he would have serious proposals and hordes of people over here. It’s a sham negotiation,” the source added.
Why is this happening then, given the urgency of Brexit?
It’s no secret that Johnson wants to have an election as soon as possible. As things stand, his drive to deliver Brexit at all costs is playing well with the public, if his current opinion poll lead over the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is anything to go by.
However, that could all change if he is somehow forced to seek a delay to Brexit. So, a big public effort to present him as the man fighting tooth and nail to get the UK a deal, and deliver Brexit – or, indeed, walk away from the EU without a deal next month – is clearly something Johnson and his aides think will play well for them in the “upcoming” election.
And it’s here we come back to how seriously Johnson is trying to get a deal. “Brexit is a tool for Boris Johnson to win an election,” an EU diplomatic source tells CNN. “We no longer believe he really wants a deal at this stage. We did earlier in the process. How can a British PM that campaigns on a ‘surrender bill’ be seen to compromise?”
This view that Johnson’s big talk on Brexit is designed to do nothing but widen divisions and lock down his base before an election is spread across the opposition benches. Labour lawmaker Wes Streeting thinks that it is a “deliberate and calculated strategy on behalf of the government to inflame tensions and increase hostility towards MPs.” And Sam Gyimah, who left Johnson’s Conservative party over its Brexit plans, said “it is deliberate … Johnson is acting like a campaigner, not a Prime Minister.”
Johnson’s supporters, of course, deny this charge. “It’s complete nonsense. I’ve spoken to the PM and he is deadly serious about getting a deal. It’s now up to the EU to demonstrate the same,” says Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative party leader, and close Johnson ally. “Those who publicly say otherwise are the same people who seem to want to stop Brexit rather than make it work.”
This explanation will ring hollow to Johnson’s critics both in London and Brussels. Painting those who oppose Johnson as Brexit wreckers and saying that it’s the EU that needs to step up is already being priced in by Johnson’s opponents.
“It seems that Johnson’s strategy is to crash the UK out of the EU without a deal and blame it on the ‘bloody Europeans’ or the opposition MPs,” is how Philippe Lamberts, a member of the European Parliament, described the situation on Friday. It’s a view shared by the outgoing President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who has been hitting back at the UK’s Brexit game for the best part of three years. He told German newspaper, Augsburger Allgemeine, that if Brexit does end in no deal, then the fault will lie exclusively with the UK.
For its part, the British government stresses almost daily that leaving the EU with a deal – and securing that deal before the next EU Council summit on October 17 – is the priority. Johnson wants Brexit done and to get cracking on a domestic agenda. British politics has been paralyzed for the best part of three years, and this situation does need resolving, one way or another.
However, with only weeks to go until the Brexit deadline on October 31, and even less time until the EU Council Summit on October 17, Johnson’s behavior seems unlikely to change. The EU has stated and restated that it remains open to talks and proposals from the UK. However, for any deal to be struck would realistically require a compromise from Johnson that could be interpreted by his hardened Brexit supporters as a sellout.
And the EU is in no mood to do him any favors. Not least because he leads a minority government with no majority in Parliament. “He might want a deal, he might not. But he can’t deliver one so it’s irrelevant,” says the EU source. “And the EU know it, so why compromise?”
Johnson is about to spend four days with his party faithful at its annual conference in Manchester, England.
His Conservative members are right behind his Brexit strategy and seem to love all his hard talk.
It’s unlikely that four days of triumphant cheering from the very people he will hope to not only vote for him, but go and campaign for him, in a general election will put Johnson in a conciliatory mood.
And so the clock to Brexit ticks down and the inevitable election draws ever closer. And it seems there is no scenario in which the hostility goes away.