During his campaign, Prime Minister Boris Johnson describe the odds of a “no-deal” Brexit, in which the U.K. leaves the European without any future arrangements for a future relationship, as “a million-to-one against.” And yet, it’s hard to see any other outcome given the strategy he has pursued since taking office. So either we are living in the very darkest of a million possible timelines—not totally impossible—or Johnson was not entirely forthcoming.
This week in Worst-Case Scenarios: A government document from Aug. 1 leaked to the Sunday Times laid out projections of how the U.K. would fare if it exits the European Union without a deal on Oct. 31. The forecasts, compiled by the Cabinet Office under the ominous, James Bond–esque title “Operation Yellowhammer,” include shortages of fresh foods, medicines, and months of delays at British ports lasting up to six months. It also predicted the establishment of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic—a key sticking point in the negotiations—and widespread protests. A government source told the Times, “These are likely, basic, reasonable scenarios — not the worst case.”
Michael Gove, the minister in charge of no-deal planning, disputed this, saying that significant planning to avert these worst case outcomes has taken place in the past three weeks. He also mocked the Times’ claim that there’s an even more severe scenario out there—which the public has not seen— called “Black Swan”:
This week in Boris: While no-deal planning continues, the official government position still holds that the U.K. is trying to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement with European leaders by the current deadline.
In a four-page letter sent to European Council President Donald Tusk on Monday, Johnson outlined his negotiating position. The main point is his demand that the “anti-democratic” Irish backstop be eliminated. The backstop, included in the original withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May, seeks to avoid a hard border in Ireland by keeping the U.K. in a customs union with Europe after it leaves the EU and keeping Northern Ireland in even closer alignment with EU regulations. The Johnson government’s position is that a hard border can be eliminated through “alternative arrangements”.
This has been Johnson’s position for a while now. Tusk responded with the EU’s long-held position that the backstop is not up for negotiation. Johnson believes that by making clear he’s serious about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, he can convince the Europeans to change their tune. Later in the week, he traveled to Europe to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, but there were no signs of a breakthrough. Macron said this week that there is not enough time before Oct. 31 to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and that a no-deal Brexit is now his government’s “central scenario.”
This week in Parliament: There was little progress this week toward building support for the “government of national unity” that would avoid a no-deal Brexit. For the moment, anti-Brexit forces are too divided for such a government to work, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is too polarizing to lead it.
Another possibility reportedly discussed by some Labour and Conservative MPs is that rather than toppling Johnson’s government via a vote of no confidence, Parliament could pass a law requiring the prime minister to ask the EU for an extension. But it’s not quite clear yet what legal mechanism would be able to do it, and it wouldn’t exactly solve the problem—just kick it down the road yet again.
After the Yellowhammer document leaked, a number of MPs demanded that Parliament be called early from its summer recess to deal with Brexit. But the prime minister’s office has rejected that demand, and right now Parliament is not due to come back into session until Sept. 3.
Days until next deadline: 71
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