So sayeth the leader of the Brexit Party, Boris Johnson’s biggest political threat to his populist right. Nigel Farage has spent the day insisting that the prime minister has signed not an exit from the EU but a new commitment to it — leaving the UK in an even worse position, subject to Brussel’s regulatory and foreign-policy control. The Benn Act might prevent an immediate no-deal Brexit, Farage concedes, but he’s changed his mind about delay. Better to put this off for another election than to take the deal that Johnson has put together:
What Farage really wants is a no-deal Brexit coalition in an election, with Johnson on board:
Speaking to Sky News, the Brexit Party leader claimed it was time to “get rid of Michel Barnier’s treaty” and admitted he would rather have an extension to the Brexit negotiations than have the deal negotiated with Brussels pass in the Commons. He said: “I don’t think whatever is agreed tonight is going to pass on Saturday anyway. But let me put this to you, if withdrawal agreement four fails on Saturday, as I believe it will, I think then Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would drop the idea of this new treaty and there is a possibility of putting together a Leave alliance for the next general election.
“I think there is an opportunity here for a Brexit alliance to fight the elections that would win a big majority in Parliament.”
He added: “Look I would much rather we had an extension and a chance of a general election than accept this dreadful new EU treaty. Absolutely. I think in a general election manifesto he can even talk about going for a genuine free trade agreement.”
That could create a huge problem for Johnson when elections get called, which will be shortly regardless of which way Parliament votes on Saturday. At least at first blush, it appeared that Johnson might have set this up so that Conservatives could avoid running on a no-deal platform. Market Watch saw this as a bit of triangulation around Labour in an attempt to expand the reach of the Tories, saying that Johnson “might not mind failure“:
Constantine Fraser, political analyst at TS Lombard, points out that Johnson will now have this deal rather than a hard Brexit to run on if the U.K. were to hold a general election.
“The main takeaway is that the Conservative party is now committed to this deal, not no-deal, and will campaign for a majority for it if the coming general election takes place before the U.K. has left the E.U.,” Fraser said.
Oliver Harvey, macro strategist at Deutsche Bank, said the most likely outcome if the deal is not ratified would be a general election in November.
“If the government were to lose a ratification vote on Saturday, Prime Minister Johnson could request an extension to Article 50 from the EU27 and table a motion under the Fixed Term Parliament Act to hold an election in November. If opposition parties refused to vote for an election, he could resign and instruct his cabinet to do the same. The political pressure to hold such an election would be high, as a caretaker government formed under these circumstances would be seen as politically illegitimate,” he said in a note to clients.
It’s not a Brexit, as Farage says — it’s a Borexit, a way for Boris Johnson to untangle himself from the Gordian knot he created by rejecting Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. If Parliament rejects it, then Johnson follows the Benn Act and get another extension, he and Farage get their election, and the two of them put together a Leave coalition and ride off into the sunset together.
Just one wee problem with that strategy — the EU won’t abide by the Benn Act. EU president Jean-Claude Juncker told the media that the EU will not authorize another extension to the UK’s Article 50 deadline, regardless of the Benn Act. Either the UK takes Johnson’s deal, or no deal at all:
NEW: We just doorstepped Juncker and he told us explicitly that he is ruling out extension. He said we have a deal so we don’t need one
— Beth Rigby (@BethRigby) October 17, 2019
That’s not quite as politically tasty for Johnson, although it’s precisely what Farage says he wants. If the EU refuses another extension following a parliamentary rejection of this pact, the UK will default into a no-deal Brexit, and Johnson and the Tories will own all of the short-term pain it creates just as voters go to the polls. If Parliament takes the deal, Farage’s Brexit Party followers will wreak electoral havoc on the Tories for selling them out.
Does this even have a prayer of passage? One can never say never, but Farage is correct that this is in some ways even worse than the May deal that Brexiters rejected three times this year. It contains both a backstop and a customs/regulatory border in the Irish Sea, with little power to end it either unilaterally. Ireland likes the deal because of both those elements, meaning that they keep their no-border status quo and don’t get pushed into becoming the UK’s customs agents. May’s Withdrawal Agreement at least kept the UK and Northern Ireland aligned together, but both deals keep the UK tied to EU regulatory policies while stripping the UK of any power to influence them. It’s a recipe for massive disillusionment if implemented.
If the deal gets rejected, though, it sets up a worse scenario. A no-deal Brexit will force the emergence of a hard border in Ireland, which will backfire on the DUP most of all. Unionists are already on shaky ground with the failure for the past three years to form an executive in Northern Ireland under the devolved government set up by the Good Friday Agreement. If the UK further undermines that with a no-deal Brexit, it will add fuel to the reunification fire that could cost the UK its last remaining enclave outside of Great Britain; the GFA guarantees a referendum on reunification if enough political support develops for it. The big question will be which leaves the UK first — Northern Ireland or Scotland, where leaders are expected to officially demand a new referendum on independence in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson had better hope that Juncker will be more flexible on an extension after Parliament rejects the deal on Saturday. At this point, the status quo looks better than any of the possible alternatives.