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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.