Boris Johnson’s Brexit Got “Done”

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

Formally, BoJo’s Brexit got “done” at 11pm on Friday, 31 January.

The impression that Brexitannia is now no longer a member of the EU is somewhat misleading. The UK now enters an 11-month transition period, due to last until 31 December 2020, that will still keep the UK bound to the EU’s rules.

The UK will remain in both the EU customs union and single market during this time, while it works out a trade agreement with Brussels. Or any trade deals with other countries that can substitute for those the UK relinquished as a result of leaving the EU.

BoJo, persuaded more by his love of the grand gesture than any sense of realism, set himself a deadline by end of 2020 to get a comprehensive deal with the EU, but the EU has set time-frames (both sides have confirmed that negotiations will begin on March 3rd) and conditions the UK– with increasing certainty as time runs out—will be unable to meet.

The UK faces a dire economic situation if it settles for a No Deal Brexit, and the EU’s game plan from now on is becoming obvious.

While observing all protocols, run out the negotiating clock on the UK, so BoJo has to plead for an extension to his end of 2020 deadline, which, given that he had promised to die in a ditch if he didn’t get Brexit “done” by Halloween last year, could start to dent his credibility with his Ukanian base.

BoJo, like his exemplar Trump, relies on a team of toadies and a compliant Murdoch-led media to abjure strategy in favour of impression-management and PR.

Trump in his cheesy flummery calls this “listening to his gut”, claiming, however improbably, that his “gut” outdoes those around him who rely on their intellects.

BoJo, though just as crass and vulgar as his American counterpart, enjoyed a more patrician upbringing, so such earthy references to sounding out their bowels is something the presumably genteel Johnson nanny taught BoJo and his siblings to eschew.

BoJo is a chancer, bully, and manipulator, with all the weaknesses these dispositions entail, and the EU negotiating team has already started to take advantage of these traits.

Step One: confirm all the way that you are impervious to such bullying and posturing, since they are intended solely for the UK electorate.

Step Two: take every opportunity to remind the UK, and the Tories especially, that this mess was entirely of their own making, so the onus for resolving it is placed on BoJo and not the EU.

Step Three: allow as many proxies as possible to complicate the life of the bully, such as having EU-member Ireland confound BoJo on its post-Brexit relations with the UK’s north of Ireland (hence when northern Ireland expresses a desire for reunification with the Republic the odds are that the EU will back reunification); or saying and doing nothing about Remainer Scotland’s threat of secession from the UK (the EU flag was taken down in the rest of the UK but Scotland is continuing to fly it); or showing partiality with respect to the British colony Gibraltar’s strong Remainer desire as a result of its close economic ties with Spain, and so on.

Spain has territorial claims to Gibraltar, and the EU has backed Spain in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations by giving Madrid the power to exclude Gibraltar (designated as a British overseas territory) from any trade deal agreed with Brussels. This will have serious implications for Gibraltar’s economy and its fiercely pro-British inhabitants, pitting their economic interests against their British identity.

Step Four: the UK will require trade deals with non-EU countries after Brexit, so put in place conditionalities and baselines with regard to the UK that will require these non-EU deals to be absolutely congruent with EU interests.

The EU insists the UK must agree to alignment with its rules on workers’ rights, the environment and state aid, as the condition for a deal, in order to preempt the UK stealing a competitive advantage. BoJo however insists he will make no such concessions, and that there will be no alignment of any kind. Something, someone, will have to give.

Many countries have for decades traded with the UK under the auspices of the EU, so they will wait to see what (if any) deal the UK will strike with the EU before they negotiate bilaterally with the UK.

BoJo and his handlers are now touting the prospect of a Canada-style trade deal with the EU. Canada’s deal with the EU took 9 years to negotiate, and eliminated 98% of tariffs on goods, but did little for financial services, the latter being of course a key UK objective in any trade deal.

It also turns out that France still has the ability in the transition period to veto the sale of British Steel to a Chinese corporation. British Steel has a plant in France, which the French now say is of vital “national interest” to them.

Japan has already indicated to the UK that securing a Japanese trade deal will depend on BoJo completing one with Brussels first. Since much of the business Japan does with the UK is undertaken via the EU, Japan will need to know what kind of relationship the UK will have with the EU before it strikes a bilateral deal with Johnson.

Several Japanese car manufacturers have plants in the UK, and they will want a UK-Japan deal which does not expose their operations to any commercial risk as a consequence of Brexit. For instance, if British-manufactured Japanese cars face a tariff barrier when exported to the EU, it is almost certain the Japanese will relocate production to the EU itself—the EU has 27 member states versus the UK on its own, so the arithmetic on this is a no brainer if you are Japanese. Japan will want UK alignment with the EU’s trade rules, a possibility already ruled out by BoJo. Something, someone, will have to give.

BoJo added a complication to a possible trade deal with the US when he announced that the Chinese tech company Huawei would be allowed to supply Britain’s 5G network,. The US has voiced its concerns over data security. To quote The Guardian:

“The green light to Huawei was given in the teeth of concerted opposition from the US and some of the prime minister’s own backbenchers. America has warned that the company’s participation in 5G networks would represent a major security risk to the west, given its close relationship to the Chinese state. Huawei has already been excluded from 5G networks in Japan and Australia on the grounds that control of vital infrastructure could fall into the hands of a potentially hostile power. One Republican senator said on Tuesday that “London has freed itself from Brussels only to cede sovereignty to Beijing”.

While the US’s “security concerns” are no doubt overblown (Trump talks about upcoming military operations with fawning guests at Mar-a-Lago, and speaks in advance with Putin about US air strikes in the Middle East without extending the same courtesy to his western allies), BoJo has always shown he’s pretty challenged when it comes to technology.

This is obvious when we see video of BoJo sitting at a computer, but his use of the demarcation between “core” and “non-core” 5G functions to say that Huawei’s participation in the UK’s 5G network would be confined to the latter prompted much derision in the media—the main reason why 5G is superior to previous phone technologies is that it is designed to operate seamlessly across the entire system, thereby eliminating any barrier between “core” and “non-core”.

No doubt BoJo will seek to convince the Americans that a trade deal is completely different from such security concerns over phone technology, but will this carry weight with Trump, with his penchant for taking advice from the mercurial Rudy Giuliani, Sean Hannity on his latest Fox News show, an array of rightwing evangelical “spiritual advisers” keen to tell him he was “sent by God”, and his fat-cat golfing partners?

The Tories owed their convincing election victory to persuading voters in Labour strongholds that voting for a Tory-Brexit will bring them a boatload of goodies (which of course Corbyn and “socialism” would not).

This was a snake-oil con, but it worked in the election. The possible evidence so far that it wasn’t a con is receding over the political horizon.

Despite a Tory election pledge to have it lifted, austerity is continuing because of Brexit — the Bank of England is moving interest rates from the current emergency rate to an even lower rate, and BoJo has told all his ministers to reduce spending by 5%.

BoJo promised that the Labour areas which switched to the Tories over Brexit would reap rewards in the form of increased investment, and so on. The opposite is now materializing, as funding already earmarked for these “Left Behind” areas is being transferred to prosperous Tory shires in the south-east of England. A review of local authority funding could move £300m/$357m from councils in highly deprived areas to Tory-controlled shire councils.

This being Brexitannia, a moment resembling a Monty Python sketch, or Bertie Wooster in a PG Wodehouse novel putting his foot where he shouldn’t put it, is not likely to be far away.

+ A couple of Brexiter MPs, with BoJo’s support, launched an online GoFundMe campaign called “Big Ben must bong for Brexit” to pay for its chimes (which had been silenced during renovation) to sound on Brexit day. The sum needed was not reached, so there was there was no Big Ben bong.

+ A 50p coin to commemorate Brexit was released. The original Brexit memorial coin had to be melted-down, at taxpayer expense, because it was marked with the original departure date of 31 October 2019. The replacement coin bore the mendacious inscription “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”, and a storm in the proverbial teacup arose when various members of the Ukanian cognitariat said an Oxford comma was needed after the word “prosperity” to meet some hard-to-identify linguistic norm.

+ The Conservative HQ issued a tea towel to commemorate Brexit with a triumphant “Got Brexit Done” slogan and BoJo’s jowly visage stamped on it. Over-priced at £12/$15, the towel’s critics said it resembled something to be found on a roll of toilet paper, and that Brexit would of course not be “done” until the UK and EU finalized an exit deal.

Also on Brexitannia-related display:

+ A sign seen in a Dublin Bar: “All Brits must be accompanied by a European after 11PM,
Except Scots, they’re sound”.

+ A “Brexit Day” poster demanding that all residents speak the “Queen’s English” has been posted on every floor of an English city tower block.

+ A Dutch city replaced the Union Jack with the Scottish Saltire in a line-up of EU flags.

In the midst of all this kerfuffling, the EU’s message to Brexitannia has been unambiguous and unwavering: whatever deal we give you will be inferior to what you had as an EU member.

The Tory Brexit has never been more than a marketing ploy for the electorate, so all BoJo can do in response to an implacable Brussels is to repeat to his supporters the plaintive refrain that “Brexit is Brexit”.

To which Brits like me say: “Of course it bloody well is, so what’s next?”.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.