He’s not even a week in to the job yet, so it’s hard to say how he’s doing. But there are signs of his overall approach to Brexit.
Broadly, there are three possible futures, to coin a phrase, for Britain re Brexit:
Agree a withdrawal deal and exit the EU;
Exit with no deal;
Rescind Article 50 and stay in the EU*.
The current deadline for one of these things to happen is Oct 31. By default, option 2 - No Deal Brexit - is what will happen unless one of the other two does, or the UK and EU agree a further extension of time.
When May was PM, the government’s approach was to try to get a deal. She came to an agreement with the EU - the Withdrawal Agreement. Getting it ratified meant winning a vote in Parliament, which she failed to do three times. Johnson, although he voted for the Withdrawal Agreement as a Cabinet Minister, is not pursuing that strategy.
He appears to have a twin approach -push the EU to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, while preparing for No Deal. The EU has been pretty emphatic that it is not going to renegotiate, so there is a strong element of brinksmanship to all this. It is not yet entirely clear whether Johnson considers No Deal a viable policy for Britain, or if this is merely a negotiating ploy. The messaging has been…mixed:
- in his campaign to be elected Leader of the Conservative Party, Johnson said that the chances of No Deal were a “million to one”.
- As PM, his first actions were to fire most of his cabinet and replace them with people who back No Deal, and to task a senior minister to accelerate No Deal programming. That minister told the press that the governemnt were working towards No Deal.
- Questioned about this, Johnson insisted that No Deal was not on the cards and that his plan was to get a deal with the EU.
It’s hard to discern if this is the work of a Machiavellian mastermind or a floundering fuckwit. Certainly Johnson has a reputation for being the former; he also has a track record of weak grasp of detail, vacillation and changing his mind to suit the needs of the moment. He’s quite capable fo saying one thing on Monday and another on Tuesday, and meaning both sincerely. Neither should be taken as evidence of what he might say on Wednesday.
All this analysis is complicated by the fact that Johnson has brought in to government Dominic Cummings, who lead the Vote Leave campaign. Cummings does think strategically and revels in disorienting his opponents by doing the unexpected. The lurch towards hard Leavery feels very much like his kind of move - it not only leaves the EU wondering what’s going on, it also scores a political win by shooting the fox of the Brexit Party, who were poised to threaten the Tories from the right in any forthcoming election, but who will have little to say against a policy they back.
The election is of course the other big element in this. Johnson’s majority in the Commons is down to 3, I think, and there are as casdave says a lot of Tory MPs (not least some recently fired Ministers) who have no love for Johnson and still less for No Deal. So winning an election and getting a malleable majority soon would be a good thing for Johnson. Of course, just because you want something doesn’t mean you can get it, and the polls don’t look amazing. So a good 50% of everything he does now will be done with an eye on winning popularity. His current tour of the UK, involving a new spending commitment at every stop, seems to be very much in this line. However, the No Deal stuff is risky, electorally speaking. It will be disruptive in the short term, and various groups (e.g. farmers, per casdave above) are being pretty vocal about that. The aim will be to blame it on the EU and/or Labour/Lib Dems/Wet Tories.
But, again, he’s just started. It’s hard to tell what he’s going to try for. It is easy to see from his past career that he’s an intellectually lazy ditherer and bully with a terrifying inability to grasp complex detail, so I’m not optimistic.
Included for completeness, not out of any actual belief in its plausibility. A lot of stuff would have to happen for this to be a serious option.