Brexit Bravado

Brexit Bravado

T P Sreenivasan

T P Sreenivasan

Boris Johnson must be a believer in Indian mythology wherein the Almighty takes different incarnations to save the world in critical situations. He watched the fall of two Prime Ministers in their effort to salvage at least some of the vital features of Britain’s ties with the European Union after the unexpected result of the referendum. Prime Minister David Cameron gave up early and Prime Minister Theresa May spent her entire term to bridge the gap between the EU and the British Parliament and went down fighting. Johnson, who was waiting in the wings decided to jump in, like a divine incarnation, as the saviour of Brexit and a liberated United Kingdom. He has no strategy for negotiations with the EU and no fall back positions. He has simply pledged to Brexit on Oct 31, 2019, whether the EU agrees to renegotiate the Brexit treaty or not. Johnson has demanded wholesale change to the deal negotiated by Theresa May with the EU, including scrapping the “Northern Irish backstop.”

The uncanny resemblance of Johnson to Trump appears to be more than skin deep. Johnson’s hair style makes him a kind of heir to Trump. He seems to have the same overconfidence as Trump, the same brashness, the same unpredictability and the same concept of disruptive action to cut the Gordian Knot. No wonder, Trump himself called him Britain’s Trump. Like in the case of Trump, the world keeps wondering whether he is really mad or there is a method in his madness. Like Trump, he promises a golden age for his country by placing his country first, without any concern for the views of his own people or others. Together with Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, we have a trinity of narcissistic incarnations, who may come close to the tenth avatar, Kalki, whose impact on the world is not known as yet.

If the bravado about a no-deal Brexit is a tough negotiating position to start with to impress upon the EU of the need to relent on the agreement reached with May, the rigidity being exhibited is reasonable, but given Johnson’s past record, the world has no faith in his honest negotiating skills. Even as a journalist, he is reported to have lied to mislead his readers.

Johnson’s visits to the four territories that constitute the UK was, however, a clear demonstration of his anxiety that the country should remain united after Brexit. But he was confronted by a number of protesters against his determination to leave the EU with or without a deal on Oct 31. In Scotland, he faced opposition from the pro-European and pro-Scottish independence supporters.

In Wales, he was criticized for not having a plan to prevent the most severe repercussions of a no-deal Brexit, especially for Welsh farmers. And in Northern Ireland, which faces the gravest consequences of no deal -- the establishment of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland and the terrifying reality of a return to sectarian violence-- Johnson was greeted by protesters holding up signs saying that "Brexit means borders."

Johnson must have realised after the visit that a no deal Brexit may mark the beginning of the end of the Union.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if no deal (Brexit) ends being looked at by historians as the event that breaks up the UK," says Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester. Ford explains that the strongest support for Brexit comes from English nationalist voters, who don't care much for the Union. "They regard it as not very interesting. And when they view it as an obstacle to Brexit, they will see it as something to throw under the bus." Based on these indications, CNN speculated that Johnson would be the last Prime Minister of the “United” Kingdom.

Expert analyses available so far suggest that a no-deal Brexit will harm the economy in various ways. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warns that a no-deal Brexit would cause an “instantaneous shock” to the UK economy, raising prices and reducing household incomes. But no one knows precisely the likely impact of the no deal. Carney did make that absolutely clear, refusing to produce an economic forecast.

A leaked Government document talks of UK nationals in other EU states losing residency and other rights; of a risk of increased crime; of the potential for an immediate halting of cross-border agricultural trade on the island of Ireland, of currency and financial market volatility. But the worst predictions about the impact of Brexit made at the time of the referendum seemed exaggerated. Similar hopes that the prophets of doom may turn out to be wrong gives reason for hope. Immediate shock may well be there, but the real test is whether it will last long. The hope is that the British economy will cope with the consequences.

Deal or no deal, there will be marginal changes in the UK like changes in the availability of goods in the market, more travel restrictions for UK citizens in Europe, change in availability of medicines and inconveniences during travel. Some believe that no deal Brexit will not have more serious consequences.

If the tough line taken by Johnson will persuade the EU to begin fresh negotiations on a treaty and the British Parliament accepts a new treaty, Brexit may well be painless with safeguards in place. While Theresa May hoped that this would happen, Johnson presumes that it will be a no-deal Brexit.

Nigel Farage, the pro EU leader has warned, however, that there is no chance of Johnson delivering Brexit by end October. After the Tories lost a crucial by-election which brought the majority of the party reduced to one seat, Farage said that there was only ten to twenty percent chance of Brexit being settled by Johnson. He has predicted that the country may face one or two general elections in six months, changing the scenario outlined by Johnson and the UK will remain in the EU. Considering the Pandora’s Box that the entire debate over Brexit has opened and the uncertainty it has created, such an outcome may be a welcome relief.