Is there going to be an extension to the Brexit transitional period during which the UK must obey EU rules and keep stumping up cash for Brussels? The answer may appear obvious: David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, has unequivocally and publicly ruled it out. As he tweeted on 16 April: 'Transition ends on December 31 this year. We will not ask to extend it. If the EU asks we will say no.'
But, this being politics, Frost’s statement leaves a key question unanswered. Namely: Is there going to be an extension to the Brexit transitional period? I do not mean to cast aspersions on Frost’s integrity here, but I merely note that in his early months as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson promised that we would leave the EU on 31 October, 2019 'come what may'. And then we didn’t.
Few blamed him, recognising that the failure to leave was not his fault and that the strength of his public commitment had shaken Brussels out of a complacent belief that Britain would never leave without a deal, causing it to reopen Theresa May’s flawed deal.
So it would be a perfectly respectable negotiating tactic to publicly claim there are no circumstances in which an extension will be considered in order to pile more pressure on Brussels, while privately holding a slightly less unequivocal position.
The downsides of allowing an extension, which technically would need to be requested by the end of June, are many and obvious. First, it could shatter confidence in the Government among pro-Brexit voters given that the Tory manifesto of December categorically ruled it out. That could in turn reignite Nigel Farage, breathing new life into his defunct Brexit party and smashing the monopoly over Eurosceptic opinion that is the foundation of current Tory fortunes.
Secondly, for the UK to request such an extension by the middle of this year would be rightly seen as a huge sign of weakness, throwing us onto the defensive in future relationship negotiations. In effect, Boris Johnson would be re-running the horrible political half-life of Theresa May, degrading before our eyes from a supposedly decisive leader into a sad and useless remnant.
As people around Johnson have been saying, an extension would not appear to solve any fundamental problem with reaching a stable agreement on trade or anything else. Either each side is ready to do a deal, or it isn’t. If the latter is true then far better to halt our contributions to the EU budget, move to WTO terms and negotiate mutually beneficial evolutionary improvements to terms of trade from there rather than just drift on in a morale-sapping stalemate.
So I do not, for a moment, expect the UK either to ask for or agree to an extension by the end of June, as stipulated in the Withdrawal Agreement. And neither should it. The British Government will instead keep the pressure on Brussels all the way through summer and autumn. And this time there will be no stitch-up between Hilary Benn, Dominic Grieve and the Commons Speaker to lessen the pressure on the EU by outlawing a 'no-deal' outcome.
However, if negotiations proceed well, with concessions being made to Britain by Brussels and it just turns out that the coronavirus pandemic really has compressed timelines to the point that otherwise-attainable beneficial outcomes are ruled out then are we really to believe that there will be no 'give' whatever in the 31 December deadline?
I think under those circumstances, were Boris Johnson to wish it, he and he alone could sell to the British public an extension of a few weeks – certainly no more than three months – to make up for lost time and allow the final loose ends to be tied up.
The media would, as they did in autumn 2019, no doubt try to bash him over the head with his own unmet deadline. But the public would see that it had, once again, concentrated minds across the Channel and would put up with it so long as they were confident Johnson was closing in on the Brussels jugular and about to deliver a winning hand for Britain.
So will there be an extension? It’s unlikely but actually not impossible in spite of the words of David Frost. If there is one it will be declared at the eleventh hour. And the British public will tolerate it so long as it embodies the essential characteristics of life without legitimate government as identified by Thomas Hobbes in his poem Leviathan. In other words, it would need to be nasty, brutish and short.