When Boris Johnson was a journalist he was a infamous breacher of deadlines. Officials and ministers say he carried that perspective into politics. His profession has been fuelled by adrenaline wrung from the final minute of each determination, which suggests he has in all probability not but given a lot thought to Brexit transitional preparations. They expire on the finish of the 12 months. If an extension is needed, the deadline for seeking one is 30 June. In commerce negotiating time, that’s quickly. But in coronavirus time it’s a faraway horizon.
Making the case for an extended transition are commerce specialists, economists and diplomats. They perceive how arduous it’s to bridge the hole between London and Brussels within the time obtainable, even and not using a pandemic. They dread the affect of talks failing amid a Covid-induced droop and might see that the disaster has slowed progress.
Veterans of Brexit talks fear about the absence of again channels within the present part. Screen-to-screen negotiation isn’t any substitute for assembly face to face, however the issue goes past the technical hurdles imposed by quarantine. A delicate grasp of what makes Brussels tick was a disqualification for becoming a member of the Johnson administration, which is full of individuals who observe European motive from afar, by means of lenses smeared with paranoia and complacency.
To the hardline Eurosceptic, transition appears like a remainer trick to bind the UK into continental rules with no say and cash to pay. The case towards prolonging that association has three components. First, offers are straightforward, and solely traitors or cowards deny it. Second, Brexit is a fiery spirit, finest downed in a single shot. Sipping is for wimps. Third, the UK will get what it needs by threatening to stroll away. The EU will make concessions if Johnson appears wild sufficient to down the entire Brexit bottle.
Those arguments are as improper now as they had been of their 2016-19 heyday, however they nonetheless go well with the prime minister’s temperament. He is satisfied that brinksmanship worked last autumn; that the efficiency of operating on the cliff and flapping his arms delivered a greater deal than the one Theresa May had proposed. It is true that Johnson’s theatrical machismo produced outcomes – however solely within the home area. It satisfied hardliners that any deal bearing the “Boris” model have to be sound, which gave political cover for a retreat. The Tory chief withdrew behind a customs border within the Irish Sea, one thing he had beforehand rejected and nonetheless denies having conceded, though it’s a legal fact of his deal.
The delusion of Johnson as world champion at taking part in hen towards the EU encourages him to search a rematch. That confidence is bolstered by the assumption that Brexit cliff-edges should not issues from which companies drop, however launch pads from which nations soar. The “Canada-style” free-trade deal that Johnson is seeking would disrupt the movement of items, however the associated fee is supposed to be offset by features in sovereignty.
The logistics business forecasts a necessity for 50,000 new customs officials to preserve the border fluid. That is greater than the quantity of civil servants employed by the entire European fee, however of course these are depraved Brussels bureaucrats who impose overseas pink tape, whereas any new monetary burden comes wrapped in a marvellous bow of indigenous pink, white and blue tape.
That Brexit mannequin takes the true believer down a harmful logical pathway: if a small deal is healthier than a giant one, no deal is the most effective deal of all. If the purpose is separation, why preserve a bridge? That was unhealthy economics in 2019, and it has since mutated into one thing worse. The new pressure of no-deal argument going round Tory circles is that any price from Brexit can be irrelevant in contrast to the upheaval caused by coronavirus. No one will discover which bit of the hardship was brought on by leaving the only market. And reconstruction can be streamlined with out the necessity to cope with Brussels. In brief, we all know the home can be on fireplace later this 12 months, so it’s higher to fan the flames than to save any of our present stuff, as a result of we want to construct a brand new home and don’t like our neighbours anyway.
That is just not essentially Johnson’s view. He hitched a carry with the novel Brexit cult to carry his ambition. It matched his type mixture of English nationalism worn with libertine swagger. It served him effectively as a marketing campaign car. But as a programme for presidency, it has limitations. Its strategies make the nation poorer.
That flaw has not done Johnson any hurt but. Experience has taught him that blame for something Europe-related will be shifted overseas or on to home enemies. He can be tempted to attempt smuggling the financial ache of Brexit inside the larger ache of Covid-19. But he may also by no means be as well-liked as he’s now, on the crest of a nationwide disaster. If there’s a pragmatic compromise to be made, that is the second. His subservient MPs would fall into line and never many citizens would care, and even discover.
Tories who know Johnson effectively say that his overarching issues have all the time been his place in historical past, and the necessity for it to be heroic. Last 12 months that meant releasing the UK from the EU. Now it hangs on his dealing with of the pandemic. The prime minister’s Brexit calculations will movement solely from no matter he thinks does the least injury to his private model and legacy.
His crammer’s intuition is to experience a deadline and hope for the most effective. If he suspects that his standing as a nationwide champion can be dented by a European accident in December, he’ll swerve. But Johnson is a reckless, inattentive driver, and the one secure turning level is arising quickly. He might overshoot just because he has not bothered to learn the map or give attention to risks additional down the highway.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist