LONDON – Boris Johnson has today unveiled what he describes as his “six point plan” for Brexit in a 4,600 word piece for the Telegraph.
It is designed to put pressure on the prime minister Theresa May ahead of the Conservative party conference this weekend, but also to answer criticisms from Downing Street’s spokesman earlier this month that the former foreign secretary has “no new ideas”.
So is today’s 6 point plan really anything new and does it amount to a concrete plan for Brexit? Let’s go through Johnson’s points one by one.
1. ‘Chuck Chequers’
Theresa May’s so-called “Chequers agreement” was signed up to by Johnson while in government but he has since labeled it a betrayal of Brexit being pursued by “invertebrates” in government. Today’s column merely repeats this criticism and states once again that May should abandon her plan altogether, which the prime minister has so far consistently refused to do. May’s plan, which has already been dismissed by the European Union and opposed by all wings of the Conservative party and the opposition, has little chance of being agreed on either side of the English Channel. Johnson’s call for it to be scrapped is therefore an easy hit. However, what matters is whether Johnson, and the large number of other Conservative MPs whose views he represents, have an alternative. So what is it?
2. ‘Scrap Irish backstop and rewrite withdrawal agreement’
The Irish “backstop” is an agreement signed up to by Theresa May’s government, including its then foreign Secretary Boris Johnson back in December last year. Under the terms of the agreement Northern Ireland would remain within the EU Single Market and Customs Union if the UK and EU fail to secure a comprehensive deal before the end of the Brexit transition period, thus preventing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. As Downing Street has pointed out to journalists repeatedly in recent weeks, at the time of the deal Johnson congratulated May and remained in government for a full seven months before finally deciding it was unacceptable. But again, criticising the backstop is easy enough. What matter is whether Johnson has an alternative plan. Today’s article, which merely restates his wish to create as-yet non-existent technological solutions to the Irish border problem, suggests that he does not.
3. Negotiate “SuperCanada” free trade deal
From the start of the Brexit negotiations the EU has made it clear that the UK has essentially two options – to remain closely wedded to EU rules and regulations after Brexit (the so-called Norway option) or to pursue a much looser free trade deal, akin to the EU’s agreement with Canada. The problem with the first option is that it would mean signing up to freedom of movement and other elements of EU membership which May has committed to abandon, while losing all say over those regulations, having departed the EU.
The problem with the Canada option is that it would entail a much looser trading relationship with what is the UK’s largest market, which the government has already stated would cost the economy an estimated £877 million a week. Given the Brexit campaign, including Johnson, promised that Brexit would actually benefit the UK economy and the NHS, by some £350m extra a week, this makes a Canada-style deal a very hard sell. Johnson doesn’t explicitly deal with this difficulty in today’s piece but instead suggests that his version of the Canada deal would be somehow more economically beneficial. Quite how this would be the case isn’t made clear in Johnson’s 4,600-word piece, suggesting that Johnson’s only real new idea been to place the word “Super” in front of his existing plan.
4. Invest in border controls
Johnson’s commitment to a ‘hard’ version of Brexit outside of EU trade and customs rules means that under his plans there would inevitably need to be much more stringent border controls with Europe than currently exist under EU membership. How these border controls would work, where they would be placed given the lack of space at Dover and other ports, and how they would be paid for, isn’t made clear by Johnson in this piece.
5. Prepare for no deal
Theresa May’s critics on the right of the party have long-called for her to more explicitly prepare to leave the EU without a deal. Those pushing this idea see it either as a negotiating tactic to force the EU to offer her a better deal, or in many cases as a genuinely good outcome from negotiations. For these MPs, the so-called “World Trade” option would see Britain cutting all ties with the EU and trading under World Trade Organisation rules instead. One problem with this scenario is that there are very few examples of major industrial nations trading solely under such rules without also being part of other multinational trading relationships. The other big problem is that the government’s own estimates suggest that such a scenario would cost the UK economy by up to £1.25 billion a we eek, which is the equivalent of 44% of the NHS budget. By any calculation this would be an economic catastrophe and a million miles away from the £350m a week “Brexit dividend” promised by Johnson during the referendum.
6. Start trade negotiations around the world in April
The UK is currently forbidden from beginning trade negotiations with third countries while still a member of the EU. However, once Britain leaves the EU in March then those negotiations can get underway, with the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox finally able to do the job he was hired to do some two years ago. However, given that such negotiations were already due to start during any transition period, it’s not clear exactly what, if anything, new Johnson is proposing.