One of the few good things to come out of coronavirus may be a hard Brexit.
That, at least, seems to be the most likely eventuality now that Brexit talks have broken down and the United Kingdom is heading towards the default option of No Deal.
No Deal, of course, is the outcome that all Remainers and the more nervous sort of Brexiteer were most dreading. But it’s also the outcome most Brexiteers were secretly hoping for because it’s the ‘fuck you!’ option. That is, it’s the option most untainted by compromise and also the one that signals most emphatically to the EU’s negotiators — most especially the slippery, intransigent and vengeful Michel Barnier — exactly where they can shove their prevarication and trickery and obstructiveness.
As veteran EU observer and former MEP Dan Hannan says, the EU has never taken the negotiations seriously, preferring to use them as a way of frustrating and annoying and demanding the impossible.
If nothing else, the lengthy talks served to establish, beyond doubt, that the EU was not negotiating in good faith. The French position on fisheries – the UK should be treated as a third country in every other respect, but should remain fully subject to the Common Fisheries Policy – is seen as preposterous by every neutral observer and by most of the EU.
It does not even make sense in terms of narrow French interests. Britain is offering French vessels a phased and partial reduction in access to our waters, not complete exclusion. But if there is no deal, there will be zero access for French skippers – who currently land 84 per cent of all the cod caught in the Channel. Hence the suspicion in some Continental capitals that Emmanuel Macron is looking for an excuse to wreck the talks. No French leader, after all, loses votes by bashing the Brits.
Not so long ago – when Brexit seemed to be slipping inexorably from Britain’s grasp – it would have been quite easy to imagine Britain’s negotiators surrendering territorial fishing rights as a form of bargaining chip to secure stronger terms elsewhere.
But Coronavirus has changed this for at least two good reasons.
The first is that the horrors conjured up by the Remain Establishment as part of its Project Fear campaign now look mild compared to what Britain has experienced as a result of the Coronavirus scare. Ex-Chancellor George Osborne, for example, predicted that the economy would shrink by 3 to 6 per cent and cost households £4,300. This now looks like chickenfeed when set against the likely hit to the UK economy in 2020. In the second quarter of this year alone, it shrank by nearly 20 per cent.
Boris understands that the coronavirus crisis has significantly lowered the cost of no deal. What had been his chief worry – a go-slow at French ports leading to tailbacks along the M20 – has been overtaken by travel bans and a fall in goods trade. The difference between the basic no-frills deal that Britain wanted and no deal – between Canada and Australia – was already pretty thin. Now, given the vast sums gobbled up by the epidemic on both sides of the Channel, it looks almost trivial.
The second key point, which Hannan as a loyal party member may be more reluctant to articulate, is this: the Conservative government’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis has been so spectacularly inept that the country is losing faith in its inability to do anything right and indeed is finding it increasingly hard to imagine voting Conservative ever again. Boris Johnson badly needs a win somewhere to recover at least a scrap of his reputation. Vile rumour has it he will retire early next year. He would presumably prefer to do so having at least established his legacy as the Prime Minister who delivered Brexit.
Johnson, it has become clear in the last year, never greatly believed in Brexit because he never greatly believed in anything much other than his divine right to be Prime Minister.
But the dog’s breakfast his regime has made of Coronavirus may well have concentrated his mind. If he’s going to placate the party grassroots — not to mention the Red Wall of Midlands and Northern constituencies currently fuming about the costs of lockdown — then he ain’t going to win them back with the kind of watered-down squishery his centrist instincts might have preferred. Now it has to be full-on Brexit, good and hard, with no quarter.
Well, unless, of course, he’s even more stupid and useless than we imagined…