Johnson will not pivot to a softer Brexit

Norway is beautiful, but not an option for the UK.
Photo by Yuriy Garnaev on Unsplash

The fact that Boris Johnson came out of the election with a large majority has led many pundits to believe he will change direction from hard Brexit to a softer one. Since he does not have to rely on the votes of ERG hardliners, the reasoning goes, Johnson – liberal at heart – can go for the soft Brexit he really wants. The pound’s surge right after the election results was likely the result of that belief.

It did not take long for Johnson to dismiss any such speculations, announcing today that he plans to amend the withdrawal agreement bill to rule out an extension of the transition period beyond December 2020. Whether born out of a desire for a no-deal exit or, more likely, a serious misunderstanding of negotiation strategy (more on that in a future post), it demonstrated that any hope of Johnson going for anything resembling the Norway option is misguided. However, there are other reasons why it is most unlikely that Johnson will go for a softer Brexit.

  1. He has surrounded himself with hard Brexiters and yes-men
    If you took Johnson and put him in a room with sensible people for a while, there is probably a good chance he would see reason. The problem of course is that most of the sensible and principled Conservatives have been purged from the party in September. Johnson’s cabinet basically looks just like it did before the election, hardliners and careerist without strong personal convictions. And don’t forget Dominic Cummings is pulling the strings in the background. These are the people that got Johnson where he is and he will not suddenly step on everyone’s toes to get a softer Brexit.
    Any group where every member shares a similar worldview is bound to develop a level of groupthink. This limits any kind of critical evaluation and will reinforce the belief in “unicorns” (we hold all the cards, the EU will blink in the last minute).
  2. A soft Brexit would alienate his base
    Johnson promised to “get Brexit done” and immediately pivoting to a soft Brexit would get him accused to doing Brexit-In-Name-Only (BRINO). As a result, he would immediately alienate the voters who kept him in No 10 and whom he needs to keep on board if he wants to win the next election. Admittedly, I don’t have the data to back this up, but it seems unlikely that those who were receptive to Johnson’s message were those Leave voters dreaming of a Norway model. More likely, they want an end to free movement and as little alignment with the EU as possible.
  3. It would give Farage a reason to come back
    The whole Brexit mess originally started to get Farage off the Tories’ back. With that objective seemingly achieved, it would be foolish to do anything that would give Farage a reason to start campaigning again.
  4. Extremists don’t have a history of pivoting to the centre
    Hoping that the gravity of office and the responsibility that comes with power will enlighten a politician from the political fringe has a long tradition and an equally long history of being in vain. We only need to look to Donald Trump, who was also expected to find his true liberal inner self once sworn in. We all know how that turned out.
    As a stark reminder of where such naivete can lead, we can look back to Adolf Hitler. Many people both in Germany and abroad believed that he only used anti-semitic rhetoric to get into office, but did not actually belief in it that strongly himself.*
    There seems to be a general lack of belief that someone intelligent enough to qualify for the highest office could genuinely have a misanthropic worldview. However, it turns out there are very few liberals cynical enough to play the fascist for purely opportunistic reasons. Instead, if someone says racist and authoritarian things during a campaign, they probably are a racist and authoritarian. This should always be the default assumption until proven otherwise.

* Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Boris Johnson is anything like Adolf Hitler. That would make light of the atrocities that happened under Hitler.

Reason for hope: Lose the battle, win the war

Everyone in the media seems to talk about the Tory “landslide”, the re-alignment of the political landscape, and the huge mandate Johnson has now. What — puzzlingly to me – seems to be completely overlooked is that on a night where Labour lost big (-7.8%), the Tories only gained a fairly small amount (+1.2%) of the vote. Some of it went to the Brexit party (+2%), the Greens (+1.1) and the SNP (+0.8%), but most actually to the LibDems (+4.2)% (source). Bizarrely, this swing gave the SNP 14 extra seats, while Brexit party and Greens got nothing and the LibDems actually lost a seat compared to 2017. In any case, the vote has hardly dramatically shifted the country to the right. The vote has only been re-allocated – moved around – although with admittedly dramatic effects in parliament. And yes, the number of MPs is what ultimately matters – but only for the next five years.

The Tory victory was built on two main factors: 1. Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity and 2. the desire to “get Brexit done”. The first factor will be gone by the next election and Labour will find it difficult to replace Corbyn with someone as toxic as him (though they may very well try, it seems). The second factor will in all likelihood have turned from an asset into a liability by the time the next election rolls along. It is in the nature of Brexit that most Brexit supporters will be disappointed when it actually happens. And Johnson’s promises for NHS, schools and police do not square well with Brexit either. For example, you cannot get a good trade deal with the EU while significantly diverging on regulations and keeping full control of the fishing waters. You cannot do a hard Brexit and keep the unemployment rate at 3.8%, let alone revive Northern England and spend generously on everything. You cannot at the same time visibly reduce immigration and recruit 50.000 nurses. Plus the issue of climate change – willfully ignored by the Tories during the campaign – is not something that will just fade into the background again.

So the odds are very good that by 2024 there will be enough disappointment in the Lab-to-Con constituencies for them to swing back in huge numbers. The question is will the Tories be able to retreat to their heartlands? While they did not lose much in the South this time, seats that used to have five-digit majorities are now down to 2000-3000 and very much in play for LibDems and Labour in 2024. A lot will depend on which swing voters are more likely to return home and it seems to me that it is much easier for a moderate Tory to stay a LibDem than for a Labour-Leaver to stay a Tory.

Therefore, this election may in the end turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the Conservatives. Combine a halfway decent Labour leader with less than stellar five years of Boris Johnson and the Tories could see a wipe-out like Labour is experiencing right now – with the difference that the swing voters won’t be particularly conflicted about deserting them.

This is by no means a given, of course. The Conservatives will most certainly try to shift blame for everything that goes sideways onto the usual suspects. For example, expect a lot of EU bashing in early summer when Johnson will have to ask for an extension to the transition period. It will be vital at that point to remind everyone that we were supposed to “hold all the cards in the negotiations”. The ability of the Tories and their allies in the press to create positive narratives must not be underestimated. But there is hope it will not be enough this time because even the people who voted for Johnson in this election do not seem to trust him one inch.

So while things are certainly looking bleak at the moment, the fact that the Brexiters and populists have nowhere left to hide now may actually turn out to have been the best possible outcome in the long run.