With Tories at His Back, Boris Johnson Can’t Cave In on Brexit

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As U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces calls to compromise in order to secure a trade deal with the European Union, one thing above all is limiting his room to move: the Conservative Party.

At stake in the final days of the U.K.’s four-year divorce negotiations are the future of the country’s economy and Johnson’s own authority over the party he leads.

For many pro-Brexit Tories who have waited years for Britain to break free of EU shackles, Johnson’s statement Friday that a split without a new trade deal is now “very likely” must seem like a dream. But that is a problem for the premier, who says he still wants to get an accord and has told his negotiating team this weekend to do whatever they can to come up with a last ditch agreement.

Johnson would be “sowing the seeds of his own destruction” if he accepted the EU’s position, was the ominous warning of one MP, speaking privately.

If Johnson does manage to pull off a deal at the eleventh hour, his struggle will switch from Brussels to London. Any agreement will need fast-tracking through Parliament so it can come into force by Dec. 31 when the transition period expires and the U.K. finally leaves the EU single market.

The Conservatives are split over Europe and while some will welcome any deal, the trickiest faction for Johnson will be the old guard of euroskeptic Tories. These MPs have built careers on taking hard-line views and no longer need to be loyal to the leader because their ministerial ambitions have been fulfilled, or faded away.

Fringe Movement

The Brexiteers were once a fringe movement in the party but now are the mainstream. The new intake of more than 100 Conservatives in parliament, who stood on a clear pro-Brexit manifesto at the election exactly a year ago, will also need to be persuaded that an EU trade agreement is better than leaving the bloc on World Trade Organization terms.

“The prime minister has given me — and colleagues — his assurances he will deliver,” said Richard Drax, the Conservative MP for South Dorset, a constituency which voted to leave the EU in 2016. “Unless we get a fair trade deal — and we all want a deal, so long as it’s a fair one — then we will have no alternative but to trade on WTO or Australia terms.”

Whatever happens this weekend, the final stage of the Brexit process puts Johnson’s politial credibility on the line. Brexit and Johnson are inextricably linked — he was the face of the successful 2016 referendum campaign and won the Tories a historic election majority last year promising to “get Brexit done.”

But his party has been critical of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic for months, and if his own side starts accusing him of betrayal over Brexit, too, his days in office may soon be numbered.

The dilemma of whether to compromise for a deal is particularly sensitive for Johnson because the mainhurdles to an agreement with the EU cut to the heart of the arguments in favor of Brexit — restoring British sovereignty.

‘Taking Back Control’

The biggest disagreements are over a so-called level playing field of fair competition rules for businesses in Britain and Europe, how any deal would be governed, and access to fishing waters. Resolving these may require fixes that contradict the sovereignty principle of “taking back control” over British laws.

For example, on the level playing field, the EU is pushing for ratchet clauses, which would require Britain to keep up with changes in EU laws in areas including environment and social protection. Otherwise, Britain would lose tariff-free access to the EU market.

One Tory MP, newly elected in 2019, said they wouldn’t vote for any agreement that conceded this principle, and that they would rather haveno trade agreement with the EU at all, and the tariffs that would follow, if it meant Britain had the full freedom to compete with the bloc.

In a sign of the strength of feeling among Conservative lawmakers, scores of rank-and-file Tories urged Johnson to stand firm and not concede to the EU’s demands in public debates in Parliament this week.

Danny Kruger, a newly elected MP in 2019, said the long-term consequences of a bad deal that keeps Britain in the EU’s regulatory orbit would be “far worse than any temporary short-term consequences that might flow from no deal”. Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley, said he wouldn’t support a deal that “leaves us shackled to EU rules and regulations in perpetuity.”

Fisheries is another emotive issue where Conservative MPs are on alert for a sell-out. At least 20 to 30 Tory backbenchers would vote against any deal that is perceived to have conceded to the EU on fishing, predicted one Conservative lawmaker, who asked not to be identified.

Fish Are Chips in Post-Brexit Trade Bargaining: QuickTake

And while Johnson has a clear majority in Parliament, it only takes a rebellion by one-tenth of his MPs to endanger a win in the House of Commons. Earlier this month, 55 Conservatives voted against the government over its latest coronavirus restrictions, and the measures only passed due to a majority of the opposition Labour Party abstaining.

On Brexit, the Labour Party is likely to either support Johnson or abstain. However, it would be gravely damaging for the prime minister if he relied on opposition votes to succeed, one senior MP said. Johnson would lose trust and authority and the wound would never heal, the MP said.

Johnson is aware of the parliamentary dynamic and understands the need for any accord with the EU to command the support of his MPs, according to a person close to the trade talks, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations.

The U.K. and EU negotiators have been given until Sunday to make a breakthrough, at which point Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will take a view on whether the process should continue.

On Friday, the prime minister said businesses should get ready for the talks to fail and for Britain to trade with the EU on WTO terms. This would be “wonderful for the U.K.,” Johnson told reporters. “We’d be able to do exactly what we want.”

Euroskeptic Tories may get their dream Brexit at last.

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