Before Biarritz

21 August 2019

From Saturday 24 to Monday 26 August. the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States will meet in Biarritz for the 2019 G7 summit. This will be the first occasion for Boris Johnson to meet his counterparts as a national leader. The summit certainly gives him a chance to reinforce his Brexit intentions; it would be odd if he weren’t also hoping that it gives him something to take home.

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It looks like he needs it. The most recent test of domestic opinion fails to confirm consistent movement the Government’s way. YouGov’s poll last week was conducted last Thursday and Friday, that is before the Yellowhammer revelations. The findings showed more of a mixed picture than that apparently emerging from the previous week’s Comres poll. YouGov showed that the country at large and Leavers in particular prefer no-deal to Corbyn (of all respondents, 13% prefer no deal; of those voting Remain in 2016, 41% prefer Corbyn; of Leave, 70% prefer no deal). On the other hand it showed no evidence of much warming to no deal (13% net unacceptable), with Remain more fervent (net 72% unacceptable) than Leave (net 56% acceptable). Similar disparities applied to other questions, with a second referendum showing as overall 6% net acceptable, Remain 67% net acceptable, Leave 52% net unacceptable. By contrast, figures from the same fieldwork but only just released show that the Government’s central “do or die” message is getting through, with net one percent now crediting the October deadline and Remainers getting the message slightly more forcibly than Leavers.

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Ahead of the G7, Johnson sent a letter to Tusk and other senior EU figures, restating the Government’s stance. If his letter’s purpose is to wrongfoot Europe, it will fail. In particular, it is unrealistic to expect a change of position from Germany. The country’s post war stance has been built upon conspicuous attachment to the liberal rules-based order which the EU is taken to embody. For example, at the time of German reunification and more recently over the Syrian refugee crisis, the country willingly shouldered burdens which dwarf anything likely to come from Brexit.

The government would be wrong to believe that the EU is holding out for a campaign of frustration from the Commons. To the contrary, Brussels is standing pat on a considered view of the risks of opening up its market to leakage. On 20 August in Reykjavik, Merkel expressed herself clearly:

“The moment we have a practical arrangement with which we can uphold the Good Friday Agreement and still define the limits of the domestic market, we won't need the backstop anymore” (my emphasis).

This gives the game away, with her stagey “30-days” challenge to Johnson deftly calculated to throw the ball back to the Brits. Expect Johnson’s warm response to be chilled by the Parisian frost. Meanwhile, our Civil Servants are sticking to the script for the first time in three years. This may flush out that the EU is the only party speaking of a hard Irish border, not to say their recklessness in hiding self-serving concerns behind the Good Friday Agreement and Ireland’s recklessness in going along with it.

Finally, aiming off the “low road” of returning from Brussels with a demonstration of the EU’s bad will, to the “high road” of returning with good news on trade, President Trump has said that he will be seeing Johnson before he sees anyone else. We have, however, yet to see if this ends up in anything tangible, or how any favours from that quarter might be sold to a British public so temperamentally adverse to the US leader.

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The alternative view of the Prime Minister’s letter is that it is intended to wrongfoot Remainers in this country, warding off the risk of Commons action. There have been reports of forty Tories determined to frustrate no deal. The numbers are conjectural and it is far from clear that such determination extends to voting against a confidence motion. Even so, forty is a sizeable number, vying with if not exceeding the equivalent number of Labour defectors from Corbyn. The table below shows the voting record of the seventy most at-risk Labour MPs, where over 60% of their constituents voted leave.

It shows that the 27 Labour MPs most at risk (under 55% share of the vote) defected from Corbyn on around one quarter of the Brexit votes in the first quarter of the year. By contrast the 21 following (55% to 60% share of the vote) voted the Corbyn line almost 100%.

Figures like these make the Commons hard to call. If Parliamentarians try to force a further extension, the Government will respond by calling or permitting a vote of confidence. If it loses, the convoluted procedure seems to enable it to delay an election for an unspecified period of time - certainly until after 31 October. This is not necessarily good news for Government. If the election were to occur shortly after Brexit day, the EU might be tempted to unilaterally defer formal departure challenging the UK to acquiesce ahead of the electoral outcome. This would create intolerable uncertainty, meaning that any election has to be so much deferred as to remove the temptation from Brussels. But an election put off for two or three months after a lost vote of confidence risks political turmoil, litigation and heaven knows what else.

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This takes us back to the polls. As we’ve seen, they are not yet showing the change in the weather which the Government needs to cow the Commons. Johnson’s hope would be to bring back something from the G7 to push things along. As things look this evening, that looks more like “low road” stories to rally John Bull than “high road” stories to cheer him up.