SIMON WALTERS: The huge Brexit gamble that Boris Johnson can’t afford to dodge 


Until last night, it was tempting to think that the acrimonious fallout from Boris Johnson’s dinner with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels was entirely stage-managed.

That it is all part of a carefully choreographed diplomatic dance which allows each side to prove to their respective supporters that they have fought tooth and nail to win concessions from each other.

That, despite all the fevered intransigence, the pair will actually soon emerge waving a piece of paper that both claim is a triumph of negotiation and compromise, and that their side got the best deal.

That, in essence, a Brexit trade deal will be produced like a rabbit out of a hat. Boris and Ursula would meet again, do a Covid-secure elbow bump, smile for the cameras, and – voila – a Brexit deal is done.

Until last night, it was tempting to think that the acrimonious fallout from Boris Johnson’s dinner with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels was entirely stage-managed, writes SIMON WALTERS

But any prospect of that suffered a twin blow last night.

Mrs von der Leyen fired the first shot by provocatively publishing the EU’s No Deal contingency plans.

They included a demand for French trawlermen to be allowed to carry on plundering British waters. 

All the UK would get in return is a derisory six months of lorries and air links running freely.

With the ball in his court, Mr Johnson responded by ramping up his own No Deal rhetoric. 

In his first public comments since Wednesday night’s dinner, he pointedly compared the EU’s demand that the UK copies any of the bloc’s future law changes to two twins being forced to have the same haircut, or British women being forced to pay more for handbags if the price was raised in Europe.

The trade deal on the table from Brussels was ‘no good’, Mr Johnson harrumphed. The UK would be ‘locked in’ the EU’s orbit for ever.

Doubtless the immaculately coiffed and accoutred Mrs von der Leyen will have taken note.

Certainly it marked a significant shift in tone from the pair’s polite mediation over scallops and turbot the previous day.

Mrs von der Leyen fired the first shot by provocatively publishing the EU's No Deal contingency plans

Mrs von der Leyen fired the first shot by provocatively publishing the EU’s No Deal contingency plans

But in many ways, Mr Johnson’s bold statement of intent last night – that Britain should prepare for No Deal – was not too surprising. He has never been scared to take a gamble on the European Union.

He took a risk with his last-minute decision to back Brexit in the 2016 referendum; again by claiming he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than not leave by October 31 last year; then by expelling 21 Tory MPs for trying to block Brexit; and finally by calling a Christmas election to ‘get Brexit done’.

On each occasion, most pundits said he was being foolish.

They were wrong. He won an 80-seat Commons majority and he did get Brexit done.

In the eyes of most – certainly those who voted for him – Boris did what he said he would do, unlike most politicians.

With the ball in his court, Mr Johnson responded by ramping up his own No Deal rhetoric. Pictured: The two lecterns which were set up for a possible joint statement before it emerged there was not going to be one

With the ball in his court, Mr Johnson responded by ramping up his own No Deal rhetoric. Pictured: The two lecterns which were set up for a possible joint statement before it emerged there was not going to be one

Of course, there will be some EU observers who, watching Mr Johnson last night, despairingly claim that 98 per cent of the trade deal is already done. 

In their eyes, all that is left – fishing rights, the so-called ‘level playing field’ and a disputes procedure – amounts to a mere 2 per cent.

But yesterday’s war of words suggests it is the other way round.

As the Prime Minister said forcefully in the Commons on Wednesday, Brexit is about ‘sovereignty’, a highly emotive word that cannot be ignored.

For make no mistake: if we do not win back control of the waters around our coast, many Brexiteers will start to wonder why we don’t just replace the Union flag above No 10 with the blue and gold EU banner.

Already hardline pro-Brexit Tory MPs are on standby to denounce Mr Johnson, a one-time Churchill biographer, as a latter-day Neville Chamberlain if he gives more than an inch.

Moreover, Brexit is also an issue of ‘sovereignty’ for the EU, which has become a ‘sovereign’ super-state in all but name and now feels a threat to its unity.

The trade deal on the table from Brussels was 'no good', Mr Johnson harrumphed. The UK would be 'locked in' the EU's orbit for ever

The trade deal on the table from Brussels was ‘no good’, Mr Johnson harrumphed. The UK would be ‘locked in’ the EU’s orbit for ever

Yet despite his punchy statement last night, Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen will be fully aware that both a deal and No Deal outcome are fraught with danger for the PM.

Give away too much to get a deal and Brexiteer Tory MPs may challenge his leadership. 

Give away nothing and go for No Deal, and risk more disruption when the UK is reeling from the economic carnage wreaked by Covid.

However, some Conservative MPs argue in private that the pandemic’s devastating impact on our finances actually strengthens the case for No Deal.

An ex-minister who is one of Mr Johnson’s most high-profile supporters told me bluntly: ‘The economic hit caused by Covid throughout Europe will be so great that it will be impossible to calculate whether Brexit has had a positive or negative effect on the economy if there is No Deal.’

Yet surely the Prime Minister isn’t so cynical as to contemplate such a calculation?

Whatever the truth, the one thing that Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen agreed on over their seafood supper was that they would both reach a final decision by Sunday.

Mr Johnson won the Tory leadership contest last year after telling his party that Brexit had to be sorted out once and for all. ‘Kick the can again and we kick the bucket, my friends, that’s the sad reality,’ he said.

After last night’s bold salvo, that statement is even more true today.

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