The British pantomime is a traditional Christmas entertainment in which stock characters face imaginary dangers and audience participation is encouraged (“He’s behind you!”), but the play never frightens the children and it always has a happy ending.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could be a pantomime character: he blusters and rages, he takes the most awful risks, and he seems to get away with it. After his latest move, a senior British diplomat remarked wearily that “we’re getting used to being part of Johnson’s pantomime”. But it may not end happily this time.
“Trade talks are over,” Johnson’s spokesman said on Saturday. “The EU (European Union) have effectively ended them by saying they do not want to change their negotiating position.” The spokesman didn’t mention it, of course, but Johnson doesn’t want to change his negotiating position either.
Most negotiations, including the current UK-EU talks to decide on the post-Brexit trading relationship between the former partners, involve a game of chicken towards the end of the proceedings. One party, usually the one that isn’t doing very well in the talks, threatens to blow everything up and walk away.
With Johnson, it was practically guaranteed. He’s well-known for setting deadlines and making empty threats about what will happen if he doesn’t get his way by then. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, even mocked him for it last week. “It is the third unilateral deadline that Johnson has imposed without agreement,” Barnier said. “We still have time.”
A post-Brexit trade deal, not great for Britain but far better than nothing, is still quite possible. The problem is that Johnson won the election last December by saying he could “absolutely guarantee” that he would get a “fantastic” free trade agreement. Indeed, it was “oven-ready”.
Johnson must have known that was sheer fantasy even at the time. But it means he must now have a couple of high-profile “wins” to obscure the fact that the trade deal after Britain’s “transitional year” ends on December 31 (if there is one) will be a miserable little thing, not remotely comparable to the completely free trade the UK enjoyed as an EU member.
So Johnson is trying to shake loose a symbolic victory or two by threatening to walk out without a deal. This is very unlikely to succeed, because he is playing chicken with an adversary who is driving a very large truck (EU population, 450 million people; GDP, $16 trillion), while he is driving a Mini (UK population, 68 million; GDP, $2.8 trillion).
In trade negotiations, it’s the bigger economy that calls the tune, so the EU negotiators assume Johnson is just bluffing. After all, they called a quite similar bluff of his last year and he crumbled. Surely, they reckon, he’ll just make a brief show of defiance, and then come round again like he did last time.
In theory they should be right, because Britain would suffer far more harm than the EU if there is no trade deal. However, Johnson’s prime ministership is safe no matter how disappointed and angry the electorate gets, because he has a big majority in parliament and the next election is four years away.
His hold on the office is not secure, however, if the fanatical Brexiters in his own party decide he has failed. His final decision will be driven by which outcome does him more harm politically within his own party, and that is a question of appearances.
As the grown-ups in the room, the European Union’s diplomats should now be devising a way for Johnson to disguise his defeat, but there is little sign that this is happening. Their contempt for Johnson’s tactics may mean they fail to throw him a lifeline—and Johnson, who is famous for dithering, may delay so long that time runs out.
Time is tight, and there are many competing demands on every government’s attention. Almost every country in Europe faces surging Covid-19 infections, and the UK government is already distracted by a growing revolt against its incompetent handling of the pandemic. The UK-EU trade talks will continue, with time-outs for bad behaviour, but they may not make it under the wire.
The end-December deadline is real. If there is no agreed trade deal by New Year’s Eve, the immense daily flow of food, medicines, just-in-time manufacturing components and other goods across the EU-UK borders will judder to a halt as customs barriers go up, and it will be a very grim winter in the United Kingdom.
Johnson’s political survival strategy then would be to demonise the EU as treacherous and anti-British, poisoning the well for any future cooperation. The grown-ups really need to get their act together, because Johnson isn’t going to.
• Gwynne Dyer is an