Boris Johnson’s cabinet formed a protective circle around the British Prime Minister on Sunday, insisting he would support him if he went for a no-deal Brexit and plunged the country into further economic uncertainty.
The apparent recklessness of Mr Johnson’s ministers, including former Remainers, about the prospect of a no-deal end to Britain’s relations with the EU on January 1 has alarmed business leaders , some sectors warning of impending disaster.
But over the weekend, as Brexit trade talks collapsed, ministers lined up to tell the Sunday Times the cabinet was “100%” behind the Prime Minister. Helpers were not allowed to speak to the press: the message to Brussels was “don’t bother us”.
Privately, pro-Remain ministers say they wouldn’t be so optimistic if they weren’t convinced Mr Johnson was going to strike a deal. Some Treasury officials also remain convinced that the climax of the negotiations is the prelude to a deal.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has privately explained to the prime minister what is at stake economically if no trade deal is in place, even though he publicly insists the country could cope.
Michael Gove, Minister of the Cabinet Office, has warned that a messy Brexit will fuel demands for Scottish independence, and worsen what is already expected to be chaos at the EU border on January 1.
But even those close to Mr Johnson are uncertain whether he will heed political and economic warnings. For a Prime Minister with little interest in details and passionate about notions of “sovereignty”, he makes sure that Brussels and its own supporters stay ahead at the last minute.
A private poll shown to the prime minister suggests the public would be willing to support a no-deal exit, according to number 10 insiders, “provided we can show we stand up for our sovereignty.” Mr. Johnson’s fascination with Winston Churchill, alone in 1940, is well known.
Peter Mandelson, former Minister of Labor and EU Trade Commissioner, thinks there will be an agreement, but said: “I think he is divided in his mind over the national interest. A bit of him thinks that the national interest lies in sovereignty and in making one’s way in the world.
The economic implications of the no deal were laid out by the Independent Office for Fiscal Accountability last month, which said it would cut gross domestic product by 2% next year – around £ 40 billion – and that 300,000 people would pay with their jobs by next summer. .
“I think the long-term effects would be greater than the long-term effects of Covid,” Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, told the Treasury Select Committee last month. Josh Hardie, deputy director of the CBI’s employers’ organization, said “things look very difficult” without a deal.
The impact on individual sectors would also be serious, as tariffs and quotas add to the red tape already created by Mr Johnson’s decision to withdraw Britain from the customs union and the single market.
Minette Batters, head of the National Farmers Union, warned that the impact on the agricultural sector would be “catastrophic” – lamb producers could face 40% tariffs on their exports – while farmers Automakers are talking about a “no-deal Brexit disaster” with 10 percent of the tariffs facing this sector.
The European Commission also warned that “failure to reach an agreement would lead to disruptions which would be deeper” than the inevitable changes that accompany Britain’s exit from the single market.
Failure would also undermine cooperation between EU and UK researchers in vital areas such as healthcare, while sabotage deals meant to ensure cross-border workers can claim benefits and plan for retirement .
The draft agreement would also help facilitate customs controls, maintain a cross-border energy market and ensure continued trade in civilian nuclear materials. Apart from economic issues, a failed talks would threaten a planned security partnership.
Ultimately, if no deal is reached this week, Mr Johnson will find himself back in Brussels in the years to come to try to strike some disparate deals with the EU and possibly a trade deal too. Rather than turning a page on Brexit, the saga would continue.
The drama at the negotiating table may well be interpreted as the inevitable showdown before Mr Johnson strikes a deal, as he seeks to suppress the EU’s ‘eleventh hour’ demands to demonstrate that he fights to the end. He must be able to sell a deal to his own party.
David Gauke, a former cabinet minister, wrote on the ConservativeHome website: “The Conservative Party has become less disciplined and more comfortable with the politics of protest. In some ways Boris Johnson is a natural leader for such a party – a columnist and controversialist; an insurgent rather than an administrator.