Many people seem to be assuming the Brexiteers will now need to agree a trade deal with the EU because of Biden’s victory over Trump. I’m not so certain. Brexit has never been about traditional political priorities, and the things they care about aren’t well served by a trade deal.
Of course the UK used to position itself halfway between the EU and the US, and in that sense a comprehensive trade deal is logical, but that’s not what Brexit is about. Let’s think about the EU trade deal from the point of view of the leading Brexiteers (people like Johnson, Cummings and Gove):
- The next general election will take place in May 2024 – 3 1/2 years from now. Nobody can force them to hold an early election. It is, however, likely they’ll lose power at that point, so they need to achieve as much as possible before then.
- The whole point of Brexit for them is to get rid of a lot of regulations – they want to throw health-and-safety rules, the working time directive, farm hygiene regulations and many other things on a huge bonfire. (This is why they’re resisting the level playing field provisions in the EU trade deal so robustly.)
- They know that Labour will reintroduce most of these regulations if they can – so they need to get rid of them quickly – ideally so swiftly that a lot of new companies will spring up to take advantage of the change, because Labour will then face their wrath if they try to turn back the clock.
- They don’t really care about Northern Ireland. They hated Theresa May’s deal because it would have kept the whole of the UK aligned with the EU to protect the Good Friday Agreement, but they voted for Boris Johnson’s version that effectively replaced the UK with Northern Ireland in those provisions (i.e., it requires Northern Ireland to remain aligned with the EU to allow the intra-Ireland border to remain open).
- They know Biden cares deeply about Ireland. The obvious solution is thus to repeat last year’s trick and agree to put all border checks in the Irish Sea, just like the Withdrawal Agreement stipulated, effectively making Northern Ireland a part of the EU and not of the UK in most regards. That will ensure the EU and the US are reasonably happy.
- On the other hand, Biden probably doesn’t care too much about the EU-UK trade deal at the end of the day. So long as Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement are OK, it’s unlikely the US will intervene.
- A trade deal creates great communication problems. Boris Johnson would have to:
- Claim the deal is wonderful and just what he wanted (otherwise he wouldn’t be able to get Parliament’s approval).
- Claim the deal is horrendous – because it’s so slim that many sectors of the UK economy aren’t covered by it and will continue to face armageddon on 1st January 2021.
- A no-deal scenario is much easier to handle:
- Slam the door and say you wanted a deal but the EU were being unreasonable.
- Tell people to brace for impact on 1st January – reminding them it’s the EU’s fault.
- Blame Covid-19 as much as possible.
- Try to resurrect the bits you like after a few months when no-deal has become the new normal.
- Of course a no-deal outcome will be horrendous, especially when Biden’s US won’t ride in on a white horse to save the day like Trump’s might have, but it enables the bonfire of regulations that was the whole raison d’être for Brexit to start with. And a lot of the consequences can be blamed on the coronavirus pandemic. It might lead to Irish reunification, but so what?
- On the other hand, losing Scotland would be a calamity and completely undermine everything they’re doing, so there’s no chance they’ll agree to a Section 30 order. If Scotland is to be independent, let it happen on Labour’s watch.
- Finally, maintain the close links with all the other fascistoid movement in other countries. Work with Putin and Erdoğan, and try to ensure that the US Republicans make another friend of Brexit their candidate for the 2024 presidential elections.
I therefore expect the UK government to pull out of the trade deal negotiations soon, but I think they’ll remove those clauses from the Withdrawal Agreement that Biden has a problem with.
I might be wrong, of course. A trade deal would obviously be much better for the UK economy, and they might be thinking they cannot cope with the impact of a no-deal apocalypse in January on top of the pandemic and Trump’s loss of power. I just think a no-deal outcome ticks many more boxes for the Brexiteers.