Something interesting happened in the United Kingdom last week. More than three years after referendum voters opted to leave the European Union, a Leave government was finally installed.
Prior to that, negotiations on a withdrawal agreement were in the hands of a government whose most powerful players had supported the Remain side in the referendum in 2016. The negotiators didn’t really believe in what they were negotiating. At best, it was perceived as a damage limitation exercise.
You don’t have to be an expert on dynamics to recognize the implications. Among other things, negotiations involve sussing out the other side’s will.
Weakness is detected when one party intuits that the other doesn’t have much conviction behind its negotiating position. And the party that’s perceived as weak is at a material disadvantage.
The U.K.’s vulnerability was exacerbated when the extent of parliamentary opposition to a no-deal exit became clear. It telegraphed that the U.K. would never walk away from the negotiating table. It would never leave without a withdrawal agreement. So the EU negotiators were licensed to play the hardest of hardball.
The dynamic has now changed.
As Boris Johnson became prime minister last week, there was great speculation regarding the composition of his cabinet.
If he opted for continuity by leaving many of his predecessor’s key players in place, this would be a signal that he was ultimately malleable. His expressed willingness to, if necessary, leave without a deal would’ve been exposed as empty rhetoric.
But Johnson didn’t opt for continuity. Quite the contrary.
While noting that “a Remainer administration has been replaced by a Brexiteer administration,” political journalist John O’Sullivan went on to add this: “And, still more important, the four great offices of state – the prime ministership, the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Treasury – are all in the hands of reliable Brexiteers.”
In addition, Johnson chose to bring in Dominic Cummings as hands-on senior adviser.
Dubbed the strategic whizz behind the successful Vote Leave referendum campaign, Cummings is a controversial man with a mission. To quote a recent Guardian profile, “corners exist only to be cut and orthodoxies to be challenged.” So if you’re a Remainer civil servant with a penchant for obstruction, life is about to become very unpleasant.
Johnson’s cabinet also complicates the Remainer narrative that seeks to paint Brexit as a manifestation of Little England xenophobia. The Brexiteers filling the big three slots – Treasury, the Home Office and the Foreign Office – are children of immigrants. And two of them are persons of colour.
Sajid Javid is the son of Pakistani immigrants; his father was a bus driver. Priti Patel is the daughter of Ugandan Asian refugees who fled the regime of Idi Amin. And Dominic Raab is the son of a Jewish refugee whose family left Czechoslovakia to escape Adolf Hitler.
None of this necessarily implies that the new administration will succeed where its predecessor failed. Nor does it mean that Brexit itself is a wise course of action.
Given the respective cards held by the two parties to the negotiation, it may well be that the EU was always destined to have the whip hand. Although both sides would suffer near-term economic damage from a no-deal Brexit, the damage to the U.K. would be proportionately larger.
Or perhaps it’s too late. Maybe the negotiation would have gone differently if the U.K. side had been led from the get-go by committed Brexiteers; but the EU’s position is now dug in and not susceptible to movement.
And with respect to the merits of Brexit, there’s more to it than economics. Feelings about national sovereignty also matter. While important, money isn’t everything.
Belonging to something like the EU inevitably involves a dilution of sovereignty. Some people are fine – maybe even enthusiastic – about that. Or if not enthusiastic, they think it’s a reasonable trade-off for what they see as the convenience and economic advantages of membership.
However, not everyone shares this perspective. Those who don’t are prepared to pay some price for reclaiming sovereignty. Implicit in their position is the view that, transitional disruption aside, the ongoing price will be marginal rather than catastrophic.
For now, it appears that the EU intends to hold firm, believing that either Parliament will step in to prevent the U.K. leaving without a deal or Johnson will fold.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.