Boris Johnson to Press for a Hard Departure from the EU

Thomas K. Grose

LONDON -- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a landslide election victory last week that gave his Conservative Party a huge Parliamentary majority of 80 seats, its largest since 1987, on the back of his simple yet effective campaign pledge to "get Brexit done" -- a nostrum that appealed to many United Kingdom voters exasperated that their decision in a June 2016 referendum to leave the European Union remains undone.

Nevertheless, despite his efforts to push through a hard Brexit since becoming premier last July, the shape-shifting Johnson, many pundits speculated, may use his comfortable majority to pivot yet again toward a softer exit from the EU that took longer to negotiate to avoid the harsh economic consequences of a bare-minimum trade deal.

But the notion that Johnson would go soft on Brexit was put to rest on Tuesday when his government announced it would ask Parliament to amend the bill enacting the withdrawal agreement he hammered out with the EU last fall to ban any extension of the upcoming final negotiations beyond the current December 2020 deadline.

Johnson's move surprised some political observers who were convinced he might ease his position because he's not an ideologue, but a slippery pol who championed Brexit during the referendum campaign. He has done so since as a means to catapult himself into 10 Downing Street, not out of any deep convictions.

"He's not a hard Brexiter, and he's capable of great duplicity," says Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham.

Brexit was originally supposed to happen last March 29. But when Parliament failed to accept the pact worked out by Johnson's predecessor Theresa May, the deadline was moved to Oct. 31. While Johnson won support in the Commons for his tweaked deal, it came with substantial risk of being greatly amended by lawmakers. That pushed him to call last week's general election.

One expert who wasn't surprised by Johnson's decision to double down on a hard Brexit was Robert Ford, a political science professor at the University of Manchester.

"It's true he's no ideologue, he does what seems in his self-interest," Ford says. And right now what's motivating him is to complete an agreement he can claim is a final Brexit as soon as possible.

Johnson, he says, won the election by promising a rapid deal, and its results also purged the Tories of all of their moderate MPs. "This is the most Euro-skeptic Parliament ever elected, and he won't want to trigger a rebellion."

Moreover, he's surrounded by aides who are hard Brexiters, Ford adds. "His advisers are not compromisers."

Johnson's deal contains a transition period to next December to allow the U.K. and EU to work out their future trade and security relations. But the EU has indicated that can't be done in less than a year's time. Trade deals usually take several years to negotiate. A free-trade deal between the bloc and Canada, for example, took seven years to wrap up.

To be sure, Tuesday's declaration still leaves Johnson with some wiggle room. His amendment would stop Parliament from calling for an extension of the transition period, but as premier, he could still agree to one.

Nonetheless, his renewed insistence that Britain will exit the EU next December again raises the specter of the U.K. crashing out of the bloc without a deal, an outcome that experts warn would wreak economic chaos and lead to shortages of food and medicines.

Ford says he doubts Johnson will allow a no-deal break to occur, but will be perfectly happy with a bare-bones arrangement that can be slapped together in the coming year.

"Symbolism is more important to him than substance," he says, and it won't matter to him that the two sides will then need to spend another four or five years filling in the gaps. "No one in the public will care."

Economically, that's still a risk.

A study by the independent UK Trade Policy Observatory (UKTPO) commissioned by the BBC and released last week found that a slim trade deal with the EU, coupled by new free-trade pacts with the United States, Australia and New Zealand would shrink the British economy by 1.4%, equivalent to $36.7 billion or $1,310 per household.

Additionally, the BBC reported, an unreleased government assessment of future trade deals reached results similar to the UKTPO's.

But that won't matter to Johnson, Ford says, because the economic hardships may take years to fully kick in, "but the politics of it are now."

And when Brexit's poor economics finally do bite, he adds, "Johnson will figure out a way to blame it on the EU."

Thomas K. Grose is a U.K.-based journalist who has spent much of his career living and working in Britain and Washington, D.C. Grose has reported from across Western Europe and Latin America, regularly contributing to several news organizations, including U.S. News & World Report, Time, USA Today and ASEE Prism magazine. Follow him on Twitter.