‘It will be done

Boris Johnson will use the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to rule out extending the transition period and stake out a hard-line negotiating position

Withdrawal Agreement Bill rewritten as Johnson sticks to his guns on transition period

By Daniel Capurro,
Front Bench Editor
Here we go again. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) is back on Friday, but not as you know it. There are a number of changes, the most important of which rules out an extension of the transition period.

After his election as Tory leader, Boris Johnson wasted no time in dismissing the idea that he would be a unifier by holding the bloodiest of Cabinet reshuffles. The new WAB appears to do the same with the idea he would pivot to a softer Brexit.

– Cutting the extension cord –

On the surface, ruling out an extension raises the risk of a no-deal Brexit at the end of the transition period next December. Eleven months is a fraction of the time it usually takes to negotiate such deals and the EU is already warning that it simply isn’t enough time.

That being said, no deal is not yet likely.

As Raoul Ruparel, a former Europe adviser to Theresa May and David Davis whose paper was the basis for Johnson’s Brexit deal, explains, ruling out an extension makes a shallow and narrow trade agreement the most probable outcome.

How that fits in with protecting the manufacturing jobs of the new Tory North is unclear. But the removal of Parliament’s control of the negotiations means the Government may well face little scrutiny of its Brexit decisions anyway.

– But keeping a backup –

Of course, this could quite easily be posturing. As Ruparel also points out, Johnson’s large majority means that removing any domestic legal barrier to an extension shouldn’t be a problem. (Nor should the inventiveness of the EU be dismissed. A suitably disguised alternative to transition could surely be found if it was wanted.)

Yet being seen to legally rule out an extension does two things. It reassures the public that Johnson won’t backslide on getting Brexit “done” – the Commons no longer having a say is as clear a message as possible that the party is over on the backbenches. And it sends a strong signal to the EU that Johnson intends to play hardball.

So is it all for show?

– Past performance is not indicative of future results –

Johnson’s decision to capitulate on an Irish Sea border to get a Brexit deal might be taken as a sign that when push comes to shove, the PM folds. Come next December he will sign whatever deal is on offer to have a piece of paper to wave from the aircraft door.

But it can, and perhaps should, be read another way. Hiving off Northern Ireland’s trade rules to Brussels was simply the price for Great Britain to have the hardest/truest (delete as preferred) Brexit possible and Johnson paid it. It suggests that a dramatic softening to secure a deal is unlikely.

– Will anyone be paying attention? –

Then again, with Johnson and a large majority, anything is possible. There is a long way to go in the negotiations and we don’t yet know if, for example, the Government will fight any and all attempts to publish official economic assessments of its negotiating objectives.

If it doesn’t, that would likely mean a steady stream of reports showing that a close relationship with the EU is more important than a trade deal with the US.

On top of that, we’re yet to get any indication of which sectors of the economy Johnson will prioritise and how much weight he will place on small but symbolic industries such as fishing over big but unpopular ones such as financial services.

Nor do we yet know if the public really will switch off from the Brexit process after Britain’s departure next January. Whether they do could have a serious impact on Johnson’s room for manoeuvre.

Brexit is back and there’s a long way to go yet.

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