Boris Johnson has Britain barreling toward a disastrous no-deal Brexit
On the surface, the early days of Boris Johnson's era as British prime minister were ebullient. Big smiles and boastful pronouncements abounded as he made the obligatory rounds. Meanwhile, the rot accelerated, as Johnson took the U.K. off a bad path and placed it firmly on a disastrous one.
Johnson assumed the position under precarious circumstances. Former Prime Minister Theresa May spent a few years negotiating a deal that would set the parameters for the U.K.'s exit from the European Union. But Parliament refused her deal multiple times. That left the U.K. with few options: It could try to renegotiate May's deal, choose to remain in the EU, or leave without a deal — the so-called "no-deal" scenario. Experts say a no-deal Brexit would do severe harm to the British economy, and put a sizeable dent in the European Union's, as well.
While May never dismissed the possibility of a no-deal Brexit entirely, she kept the idea at arm's length. Boris Johnson, however, reached for it right out of the gate, promising to deliver Brexit by October 31 — deal or no deal. And one of his first actions as prime minister, aside from stacking his Cabinet full of hard Brexiteers, was engaging the U.K. in a dangerous game of chicken with the EU. He demanded that the trading bloc abandon the so-called Irish backstop — which would prevent a hard border between Britain's Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland. Brexiteers worry such a backstop would subject the U.K. to EU customs and trade regulations indefinitely, so Johnson wants to see it removed from the negotiating table.
While a no-deal Brexit would hurt both sides, Johnson's threat is likely to ring hollow in Brussels. Michel Barnier, the EU's lead Brexit negotiator, scoffed at the demand, calling it "unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European Council." Johnson says he won't budge, but he's long been known in Brussels as a man of many words, but not a man of his word — loquacious, but not veracious. All of the stakeholders know this. Along with not trusting him, they know that he only stands for self-glorification.
Still, if this maneuver somehow works, and the backstop plan is removed, the U.K.'s relations with its largest trading partner will be horribly damaged. Johnson will have essentially seized concessions through hostage-taking. Good luck making future deals.
If it doesn't work, and the EU continues to stand firm on the backstop, Johnson will face a uniquely difficult choice. He's trapped himself with his words, yet his words can also set him free. Unfortunately, there's the small matter of his ego getting in the way. He's sold himself to the people who voted for Brexit as their swashbuckling hero who won't take any guff from the EU. He can either fold in front of his audience, or he can barrel forth towards oblivion. The first choice would save his people but sacrifice his ego. The latter would hurt them while he'd inevitably benefit. While it's fun to imagine a contrite Johnson tossing his precious ego into Mount Doom, the thought of him doing so to save his country seems fantastical.
Then again, maybe oblivion is the goal. The Guardian reports that Johnson "has no intention" of reaching a deal, and that crashing out of the EU is his "central scenario." And it's true that some would like to see the U.K. fall out of the EU for the crisis it would foster. Leading Brexiteer and the current Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg launched two hedge funds in Ireland in recent years, and they both listed Brexit as a risk factor. We can always count on vulture capitalists to not waste a good crisis, and Boris might be able to deliver it for them while leaving the EU to blame. If that's the plan, it's an ugly one.
Folks who want to ward off a no-deal Brexit need to move fast. Without an agreement on a deal, or an extension in place, the U.K. will automatically leave the EU in just under three months. Parliament is expected to hold a no-confidence vote when it resumes on September 3. But even if that succeeds, Johnson seems likely to defy convention and remain in office long enough to force Brexit through. But there's still time to do something. The people need to get out in the streets and demand Boris step down. Constant, growing pressure is the only thing that will head off this disaster. The time for waiting and waffling is over. Now is the time to act.