The spectacle of Mr Johnson acting decisively on his central mission to “Get Brexit Done” with or without a deal is just what he needs
Readers of a certain vintage may recall a hit TV drama series called Danger UXB that was set in the Second World War and screened in the late 1970s. The last three letters were not an early postcode for Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge constituency, but an abbreviation of “Unexploded Bomb”.
Blond heart-throb Anthony Andrews played the central character, Lieutenant Brian Ash, as he went about London and the South East disarming German munitions which had landed without going off.
As you may imagine, Ash was often to be found in very tense situations which required him to make a heart-stopping decision about whether to cut a black wire or a red one. He once made the wrong call and was badly – though not fatally – injured.
That is pretty much what has just happened to the ash blond of Downing Street in regard to Christmas social distancing restrictions. But there is no time for convalescence because in this particular episode of Danger UXB MP, our hero must defuse a second massive device while still reeling from the first one having blown up in his face. And if he gets things wrong with the Brexit doodlebug his chances of survival are remote indeed.
So it is just as well that Johnson has to date approached the endgame of Brexit with impressive clarity, having thought about his strategy carefully in advance. His decision a week or so ago to start talking up Britain’s prospects under an “Australian trading arrangement” with the EU certainly spooked the powerbrokers of Brussels.
They surmised, correctly, that the PM would not wrap himself in the flag and pro-actively lead his electorate to expect such an outcome, were he not actually prepared to go through with it.
This weekend Cabinet ministers are again communicating a resolute and clear message: unless the EU shifts its position then there will be no trade deal and those Australian – in reality, WTO – terms will come into force on January 1.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky’s Sophie Ridge: “Some of the requests from the EU are unreasonable and do not respect the result of the referendum – some of the rules around level playing field and then about fishing. A deal can be done but obviously it needs movement from the EU side. It is so important that the EU side makes the changes that are needed to get a deal. Otherwise we are ready for an Australian-type outcome. We are absolutely ready for it.”
While Mr Hancock is not everyone’s cup of tea, he is considered within Downing Street to be an ultra-reliable message carrier. So this stance will not have constituted his own off-the-cuff summary, but will have been agreed in advance with the PM’s inner-circle.
As The Telegraph reports today, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has also been talking calmly about preparing for a no deal outcome, telling parliamentary committees that he was already thinking about a series of sectoral and issue-specific mini-deals that could help the UK and EU to manage their relationship in the absence of a comprehensive agreement. Areas to be covered by these “side deals” could include the Erasmus student scheme, mutual recognition of professional qualifications and law on intellectual property.
Again, the calm and matter-of-fact demeanour of Mr Gove was designed to underline to the EU side that Britain really will go through with ending the transition period without having a comprehensive free trade agreement in place. Our chief negotiator Lord Frost has also repeatedly made clear to Michel Barnier on the EU side that five-to-midnight concessions that cross UK red lines on legal and territorial sovereignty are simply not going to be sanctioned.
Provided Mr Johnson and his ministers stick to this basic position, the remaining frantic rounds of talks actually become very straightforward from a British point of view: you budge or it’s no deal. All the most difficult questions instead face an EU side that had until lately assumed that Johnson would buckle as Theresa May did when negotiating withdrawal terms but must now decide how much it is actually prepared to shift in order to protect access to one its most lucrative export markets.
The spectacle of Mr Johnson acting so decisively on this central mission to “Get Brexit Done” is just what he needs after all the flailing round over Christmas – a subject upon which “Yule” never be able to trust another word he utters. But there is one thing that could yet bring him down and turn his core supporters decisively against him: a last-minute loss of nerve that sees him switch from a pre-ordained strategy of cutting the black wire to a panic-ridden lurch towards those red lines, wire-cutters in hand.
The UXB boys had nerves of steel. No amount of careful preparation can substitute for that. Does Boris Johnson? We are about to find out.
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News – After his Christmas flip-flop, the last thing Boris can do is go soft on Brexit