Since Boris's thumping general election win in December, I've lost count of the number of people – both Remainers and Leavers – who tell me that no deal just won't happen. Boris needs a deal, they insist, and the EU will bend a little here and there to give the Prime Minister a ladder to climbdown. Yet I've always been convinced that no deal is far and away the most likely outcome of the EU negotiations in 2020. Today's warning from the PM – in which he talks down the prospects of a deal – make me even more sure this is the case.
Why am I convinced no deal is so likely? Firstly, the EU’s position in all of this continues to be misunderstood by many in Britain. While the EU would clearly prefer to have a deal with a post-Brexit Britain, there are clear red lines they have never been willing to cross. Given that Boris has always made it clear that he intends to cross those red lines, it seems only logical that no deal is the likely end result.
So how can we explain the no-deal denialism? It appears to largely stem from the view that Boris Johnson doesn’t really believe in anything and so, when faced with a cliff-edge moment, he will cave in completely.
But this logic doesn't stand up to scrutiny. If you really think Boris just blows with the wind, why would you assume that caving in to the EU is where he’ll go? After all, making a whole bunch of concessions that would be unpopular with both sections of his party and his new voting base would be courageous, particularly when he is already under big pressure over his Covid strategy. It would be, dare I say it, Churchillian, to go against the grain of thought within the Conservative party in pursuit of a greater good. I have never bought the idea that Boris will cave in to the EU out of fear; I think he is scared of his own party much more than any fallout from a no-deal Brexit.
Alongside this misreading of the PM, there is another simple assumption made by many who assume no deal is unlikely: that neither side could let it happen. Except that, what is required of both the EU and the UK to prevent it are a series of politically difficult climb downs on highly-sensitive issues. When you combine this with the fact that both sides believe the other side has way more to lose over a no-deal Brexit – and that the timespan for negotiations was comically short to begin with – the idea that no deal could never occur begins to look fanciful.
Even now, after Boris’ fiery speech, plenty of people still insist there will be a deal reached before the end of the year. That this is all posturing by Boris, as well as a lot of grandstanding from the EU in response. The reality of no deal will soon set in and bring with it the need to compromise soon enough. But this raises a question: how does Boris make any concessions after what he’s said today? He’s given the Leavers what they wanted in saying the EU has been unreasonable. And, just as he said he would, he’s now going to walk away until they agree to his terms. Given the EU is unlikely to back down sufficiently to allow Boris to claim victory, I don’t see how this gets us to anything other than no deal. Even if Boris meant today as a bluff, he’s made no deal much more likely.
A no-deal Brexit then seems like the outcome we were always heading for. But for all the doom and gloom about 'crashing out without a deal', this could be the best outcome for Britain and the EU – and for both Remainers and Leavers.
After the 2019 election, it is clear Brexit needs to happen in a way that ensures no one can claim it was watered down. It needs to be an experiment we go all the way with as a country. Remainers, if they believe in everything they have ever said about Brexit, should be strangely happy with a no-deal outcome; it will settle the debate of whether leaving the EU is or isn't a disaster.
Love it or loathe it, Brexit will either be a roaring success or a total failure, and no deal ensures we will find out which of these it is faster than anything else. Only then will Britain be able to move on from this debate and stop 'banging on about Europe' once and for all. So for those who still believe this is all just a big Boris bluff, listen to the Prime Minister: it’s time to get ready for no deal.