His policy of maybes is fraught with risk
Donald Trump, in his book The art of The deal, wrote: ‘I like thinking big. I always have... Most people think small, because most people are afraid of success, afraid of making decisions, afraid of winning. and that gives people like me a great advantage.’
no wonder, then, that he regards Boris Johnson as ‘Britain’s Trump’, since there is nothing our new Prime Minister enjoys more than ‘thinking big’.
defying his critics, the Tories’ blond bombardier kicked off his premiership at a whirlwind pace, with promises to hire 20,000 new police officers, build a new high-speed northern rail link and kick-start a ‘new golden age’.
all good rousing stuff, of course, and a bracing contrast not just with the supremely miserable Jeremy Corbyn, but with his Tory predecessor.
For all her virtues, Theresa May seemed forever cast as the bearer of bad news. But as the nation’s cheerleader-in-chief, Johnson hopes to bulldoze his way through to electoral success, not least by throwing billions of pounds at eye-catching projects in the hope that one or two might work.
In the grand scheme of things, though, all this is just window dressing. For May learned to her cost, only one thing matters: Brexit. If Johnson makes a success of it, he stays in downing Street. If he makes a mess of it, he is out. It is as simple as that.
In a striking departure from May’s strategy, there is a well-drilled campaign to convince Brussels that Britain is now deadly serious about the prospect of no deal on october 31.
May insisted that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, nobody believed she really meant it. It became increasingly obvious she regarded the prospect of no deal as an unalloyed disaster. as Brussels insiders gleefully told the Press, the British liked to talk tough. But they always folded eventually.
how different the mood is now. as Johnson’s ‘ Brexit coordinator’, Michael gove, wrote yesterday, the government is ‘ working on the assumption’ of no deal, which it sees as a ‘very real prospect’.
The PM has convened a ‘war cabinet’ of six Brexiteer ministers which, as the Mail reports today, is planning a £10million ‘PR blitz’ with a leaflet sent to every home on preparing for a no deal Brexit, while a no deal ‘operational committee’ is due to meet daily.
Chancellor Sajid Javid is said to be promising an additional £1billion to prepare for crashing out of the Eu.
and, with ministers working on the assumption that the Eu will block any plan to scrap the Irish backstop, it has emerged that Johnson has no plans to visit Brussels, Paris or Berlin in the coming weeks to lobby them to do so.
on the face of it, this all looks terrifyingly risky. Most British businesses dread the prospect of no deal, with its potentially catastrophic impact on orders and supply chains. If it goes wrong, the Tories could find themselves out of office for a generation, handing power to Corbyn’s sinister cabal of Marxists and anti-Semites.
But is there method in Johnson’s bravura? In The art of The deal, Trump insisted that ‘the worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.’
Crucially, there is a precedent for a British PM talking tough, threatening armageddon and getting his (or rather, her) way.
In the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher infuriated her European partners by effectively blocking progress on further European integration until they gave her a massive rebate on Britain’s Eu budget contribution.
She refused to budge, once lecturing the other leaders for four hours over dinner.
at one point, she ordered the Treasury to prepare to cut off British funds from Brussels accounts – a declaration of war that appalled many colleagues.
But it worked. Brussels blinked, handing back more than £700million a year, the equivalent of at least £4billion today.
having been a journalist in Brussels between 1989 and 1994, Johnson will be very familiar with this story. and he clearly believes similar tactics will pay off again.
In his dream scenario, Brussels, impressed and alarmed by the government’s no deal preparations, will blink at the last minute, scrapping the controversial Irish backstop and handing him a new agreement. Result: a deal, a smooth Brexit and crowds pouring onto the streets to acclaim the male Maggie.
Is this vaguely plausible, though? Well, it hinges on two issues.
First, do Eu leaders believe Britain is serious about no deal? Even before yesterday’s developments, the answer so far seems to be ‘yes’. Ireland’s foreign minister has said that Johnson’s confrontational first Commons appearance as PM was a ‘very bad day’, which suggests the dublin government is taking his threats very seriously.
and more importantly, will they blink? at the moment, the answer seems to be a very firm ‘no’. From the outset, Eu leaders have been adamant that there can be no changes to their withdrawal agreement. and amid all the turbulence of the last few months, there has not been the slightest hint that they would consider scrapping the Irish backstop.
Indeed, all the signals suggest that France’s President Emmanuel Macron, in particular, wants to make an example of Britain, and would welcome the prospect of a chaotic no deal Brexit.
I might be wrong, of course. Perhaps, at the very last moment, Europe’s elite will judge that it would be better not to risk a colossal economic shock.
Perhaps, impressed by the seriousness of the uK government’s no deal plans, they will offer concessions. Perhaps Johnson’s audacious brinkmanship will pay off. If so, he should be cheered to the rafters. But any policy depending on so many ‘maybes’ is fraught with risk.
on day one in the job, Johnson hit out at the ‘ doomsters and gloomsters’ who worry about the prospect of no deal. I agree that doomsters and gloomsters are not much fun. But that does not mean they are wrong.
It is in the very nature of brinkmanship that it often fails. no gambler wins every time. and if Johnson’s bet fails, there will be only one winner: Jeremy Corbyn.