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What he is right about

  • The core of Boris Johnson’s argument, stripped down to its essence, is that Brexit will be a success if carried out in the right way.
  • It follows that this can be so even if there is no fully-fledged trade agreement, and Britain enters into a relationship with the EU based on a minimalist WTO settlement.
  • The institutional gloom pouring out from the Treasury, permeating Whitehall like a Bleak House-type fog, should be cut off at source.
  • Instead, the department should seek to cut tax, slash regulation, invest in infrastucture, and go for Dominic Cummings-type science and hi-tech.  This is the kind of Open Brexit, as this site called it last year, that will work for Britain.  It is broadly the approach that David Davis took in the article the wrote for ConservativeHome a few days before his appointment as Brexit Secretary.  And it is what Philip Hammond dangled in his interview with Welt Am Soontag last year (and from which position he later resiled).  It is a stance any Conservative worthy of the name will cheer.  It should be noted that the Foreign Secretary doesn’t have much to say about immigration, on which he has taken different positions at different times.
  • On balance and in principle, the Foreign Secretary is right about spending £350 million a week extra on the NHS.  It is true that this aspiration was a Vote Leave slogan rather than a Theresa May pledge.  It is also true that simply pouring the cash into the health service by the juggernaut-load would risk it vanishing without trace or any good.  This is doubtless why Johnson has adapted the aspiration to stress “a lot” of that sum going on the NHS, “provided we use that cash injection to modernise and make the most of new technology”.  The big point is that many voters see that slogan as a promise and, irrational as their collective take may sometimes be, it must ultimately prevail.  The question is timing.

What he is wrong about – or at least, where he did not tell his readers the whole story.

  • A fully-fledged trade deal with the EU is on balance more desirable than a relationship with less easy access under WTO rules.  The basis of one, expressed very crudely, is money for access.  The EU27 need as much as they can continue to get of our €9 billion annual net contribution to the EU, without which they faces a €63 billion hole for the seven-year budget period starting in 2020.  We want access to the Single Market on terms as close to the present ones as possible (the proportion of our exports to the 27 is higher than theirs to us). Johnson’s position – “we would not expect to pay for access to their markets any more than they would expect to pay for access to ours” – explodes this basis for any fully-fledged trade deal.
  • On the one hand, taking an aggressive, buccaneering, Johnson-type position on a Singapore-flavoured economy might put the frighteners on the EU27, thus making a deal more likely.  On the other, the EU27 could dig in were they to conclude that the UK was determined to undercut, social dump and disadvantage them.  So the negotiating merits of the Foreign Secretary’s view on the point can be argued either way.  But Brexiteers should ask themselves how likely it is that the EU27 would simply fold in any negotation after being offered the best part of no cash at all (as they would see it), given the centrality of the issue to them.  In short, Johnson’s stance on the money would take us much nearer “no deal”.
  • No deal would not necessarily simply mean no deal over tariffs.  It could also mean no deal over basic legal certainties – the classic example is certainty over aircraft landing rights.
  • No deal would also mean no agreement over non-tariff barriers, which would empower EU27 member states to impose new regulations and means of keeping UK goods and services out.
  • It’s evident that at heart the Foreign Secretary opposes any implementation deal.  But there are practical reasons for wanting one, as long as it lasts no longer than three years, maximum.

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In essence, Johnson’s position, if implemented in the Brexit negotiation, would be likely to tilt the outcome towards a minimalist WTO settlement than a fully-fledged trade agreement.

Britain could survive and even flourish under the former.  ConservativeHome has devoted a whole series on this site to making that case. But it is not the optimal outcome.

This is because, although it would be unlikely to cause a fully-fledged trade war with the EU27, it could well mean legal uncertainties – with very serious consequences – and running problems with non-trade barriers.

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To end briefly with the Westminster politics, there is no majority in the Conservative Parliamentary Party for tilting towards the WTO route.  Any attempt to force one could bring down the Government and pave the way for a general election, which Jeremy Corbyn might win.  Nor is there a majority in the Commons for the spending constraints that must necessarily accompany tax cuts and deregulation on the scale that the Foreign Secretary seems to want.

Finally: for Johnson, a key issue seems to be “the money”.  For many Brexiteers, this is secondary: their main concern is ending ECJ jurisdiction.  For what it’s worth, this is our position.

247 comments for: Put aside the Westminster politics, and ask: on Brexit policy, is the Foreign Secretary right?

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