UNTIL TUESDAY 23 JULY when the Tories announce their decision, we are stuck in an interregnum. May’s spending commitments have scant purchase upon her successor; her ribbon-cutting on the world stage counts for similarly round numbers. Nor has the contest between Hunt and Johnson thrown up anything of substance. All we learn is that the constituency associations turn out so resolutely hostile to the Withdrawal Agreement that contenders have found it expedient to belt out that new pub favourite, My Brexit is harder than your Brexit. And the Labour party’s strangulated progress to outright Remain will mean something only if the new Government loses control of events.
This tells us that we are likely to look back on this period as the calm before the storm. The new Prime Minister – OK, let’s admit that the regulars are likely to go for Boris – will start out circumscribed by tactical considerations. He will never escape them. First he must hit the ground running to wrangle the moving parts detailed in Hustings, with new Cabinet and Civil Service appointments, together with wheezes to placate former ministers, the Commons in general and the country.
Unless Boris blows up in the next couple of weeks, he can expect to win an initial vote of confidence, as no Tory will wish to be seen as failing to give him his initial shot.
Thereafter the logic of events will hem him in. It’s odds-on that he will be able to hold the Commons at bay until his negotiating team returns from Brussels. Then for the crunch. No-one should expect the EU to throw Ireland to the wolves, but they may have wit enough to promise a Canada-style FTA within twenty-four months, coupled with a “resolute intention” (or suchlike guff) not to enforce the backstop. This might well tempt Boris to declare victory, leaving the ERG to stew in the juice of its objections to unconditional payment and prolonged submission to the ECJ; and its complaints that “resolute intention” is less than an Attorney General would recognise as legally binding.
But Boris’ team is obliged to plan for the worst, in turn making it more likely. We see this if we follow the logic through. If Brussels sends our negotiators back with a dusty answer, Boris will face just two alternatives. It could be that polling data on the topic will help him along, that is showing healthy majorities of a view that the EU has been taking us for a ride. In this case he will have the wherewithal to bulldoze the Commons into no deal with the threat – in extremis the actuality – of an election. Failing that, he is as much stymied as May, in all probability out within his first one hundred days.
Boris’ team would be derelict were it not war-gaming around the central premise that it would be the second worst thing to get trapped in this way. The remedy is straightforward. Expect the tone of official announcements to take a sombre turn almost immediately after 23 July. The team needs to prep public opinion for a moment when negotiations fail, not just with reports of strenuous preparations for no deal, but more pointedly with an animating narrative: a back-story of three years of EU intransigence, coupled with ingenuous hopes that Brussels might at last see sense. Complaints from May’s former team, domestic Remainers or the EU itself will reinforce messaging along these lines.
But it will also make no deal more likely. No-one should be surprised if a late summer of disobliging comments from London cause Brussels and the Member-States to bridle. We should expect blowbacks sufficient to cramp any inclination for an offer that might command Commons support, itself made less likely as domestic opinion becomes inflamed.
And so to the very worst thing: excitable sorts taking the more robust official tone as a license for expressions of Jingoism. No-one wants social media to be overwhelmed by images of mobs burning flags in Belgrave Square. This puts Boris’ team on its mettle to find Goldilocks messages. Loving our neighbours to bits, with particular mention for Ireland; such a shame about the EU bureaucrats who have let us all down. Plenty of goodwill, money and technology for real issues; nothing for confected difficulties. Even so, we should brace ourselves. We always knew that the hundred days in prospect after the current interregnum were likely to be a roller-coaster. On reflection, it looks like we should be warming ourselves up to the new fairground owner greasing the skids on the ride. Hang on to your hats.