Brexit transition and the coronavirus crisis – what hope reason will prevail?

In February the coronavirus was just beginning to affect Europe. I guess many of us thought it would come and go like other viruses in recent history and would certainly not affect the Brexit negotiations. The big issue was the extent to which Boris Johnson was serious about no-deal if the EU didn’t back down and accept the UK government’s demands. Now most European countries and many others have shut down except for essentials. The government has been overwhelmed by the virus and the Brexit negotiations have been severely curtailed. Reaching a comprehensive deal by 31st December 2020 now looks almost impossible.

The government is nevertheless saying that the negotiations are continuing (some limited discussions are being conducted by video link) and insist that they will not seek an extension to the 31st December deadline. A statement on 16th April by David Frost, the UK’s lead negotiator, saying that the UK government will not ask for an extension was reaffirmed last week by Johnson and other senior ministers. Many commentators think this is crazy, but some accept it or seem resigned to it. Others think it’s likely that the government will ultimately back down and ask for an extension.

Clearly the big issue now for Brexit watchers is whether there will be an extension and when it will be announced (one of the best recent discussions of the negotiations and possible extension is by Tony Connelly, Europe Editor of RTE). In a separate blog I outline the negotiations and some possible outcomes. They are summarised in the table below.

A coronavirus extension?

Why are Johnson and the government adamantly against an extension when the world is experiencing a crisis unprecedented in modern times? Any kind of rationality points towards an extension. International trade and travel have been severely curtailed and the global economy is under extreme strain. A deep recession looks certain. Adding the significant disruption that would come from anything other than the best Brexit deal seems crazy. Negotiating a comprehensive trade agreement in a few months was always an extreme stretch (they normally take years).

But as those of us who have followed the Brexit saga closely know, there is little rationality in Brexit.

Hard Brexiters don’t want to concede anything to objective reality unless forced to (I argued in a blog that they were forced to concede to the Irish Sea border deal last October mainly because they were in danger of losing their Brexit). Making a concession would be tantamount to accepting that Brexit is not a good idea and could lead to further questioning of the project. After all, Brexit was supposed to be easy and Britain would be in a better position to face the problems of the world. If Britain backs off now in the face of the first big post Brexit crisis, would it not continue to back down after further problems until there’s little left of the project? (A similar argument is made by Brendan Donnelly of the Federal Trust, though he is not optimistic about the prospects of an extension.)

But no matter how determined anyone is, objective reality cannot be ignored indefinitely. And of course governments can and do compromise while presenting their action as an achievement (witness last October when the Johnson caved in to the EU).

So how might the government approach the Brexit negotiation in the crisis? In a blog published on 29th March Prof Simon Usherwood considered a number of possibilities.

First, the government accepts the need for an extension but they wait for the best time politically to make the announcement. This would be in order to show hard Brexiters that they’ve done all they can but were forced into it by circumstances beyond their control.

Usherwood thinks that this is fairly likely and many commentators think the government ultimately will seek an extension. For example, on 24th March Peter Foster, then Europe Editor of the Telegraph and now at the FT, said ‘the UK will have no choice but to seek an extension’ and on 16th April he described how badly prepared the UK would be without one. On 15th April Joe Owen of the Institute for Government, said that a ‘transition extension is now looking inevitable’ (also see IfG report). On 16th April Lewis Goodall of BBC Newsnight, said we shouldn’t listen to the government statements rejecting an extension at the moment – it’s just ‘shadowboxing’. And in his Brexit blog on 17th April Prof Chris Grey thought on balance that pragmatism is likely to prevail.

A second possibility is that the government will realise that reaching a deal is necessary and ultimately will cave in to the EU while finding a way to present it as a triumph. The cave-in would particularly be on the Level Playing Field requirements, the role of the Court of Justice, and fishing rights. It could echo last October’s cave-in to the EU which was presented by many in the media as a great achievement.

Although Usherwood thinks this is fairly likely, a problem is that last October there was a real threat to Brexiters that they would lose their Brexit. This threat no longer exists. The real issue now is the potential economic and political damage from no-deal (or a very thin deal) and whether the government and Conservative MPs would really accept it. The government (and its supporting media) could possibly present a cave-in as a victory, but whether they would want it is a different matter.

A third governmental approach is to prepare for no deal and use the coronavirus crisis as a distraction. The aim would be to conceal no-deal Brexit disruption behind that caused by the virus. In this scenario the government would really willing to go for no-deal unless the EU accepts most of its demands.

Although Usherwood thinks this is unlikely, it brings us to the nub of the matter. Are the government and Conservative Brexit supporters willing and determined to go for no-deal if the EU do not cave in and accept all their demands? In addition to the big economic hit from the corona crisis, would they be happy with big price rises of food and manufactured goods as a result of new import tariffs? (Or if they went for a WTO zero import tariff regime, would they be happy with the decimation of the UK’s food production industry, manufacturing and farming as a result of cheaper imports from outside the EU?). Would they accept the widespread shortages that could result from cross-border regulatory checks and the disruption of supply chains? Would they be relaxed about businesses losing big export markets in Europe as new regulatory barriers spring up? Perhaps they’ll dismiss all this as ‘Project Fear’. Or perhaps they really do want to ‘fuck business’ as Johnson said not long before he became PM.

If they are really willing to accept all this, if they really think it’s exaggerated or can be concealed under the corona crisis, then they’ll want to get the no-deal disruption over as soon as possible in 2021-22, well before the election in 2024.

Ultras versus realists

So what will the government do? You don’t have to spend long on Twitter to find people who are sure they know the government’s mind. Some are certain the government wants no-deal, others that they’ll cave in at the last minute. The truth is that we don’t know. But there will surely be a fault line in the upper echelons of the Conservative party. ‘Ultras’ (such as Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg) would not cave in to the EU – they would rather accept no-deal. Perhaps some of them actually want no-deal.

‘Realists’ in contrast will be getting nervous about no-deal, particularly given the current crisis. They will be agonising about the damage of a no-deal Brexit and the politics of seeking an extension. They are more likely to accept the need for an extension or to seek a compromise deal.

The term ‘realist’ is relative of course and I’m not suggesting there are two identifiable warring tribes. All Conservative MPs have signed up to Johnson’s hard line strategy of facing down the EU (their ‘opponents’ or even ‘enemies’). This involves doing everything to appear fully serious about walking away from the negotiations and leaving with no-deal in the hope that the EU ‘blinks first’ and caves in. For now that means holding to the existing timetable and not seeking an extension. All that is plain to see.

What I am suggesting, however, is that some Conservatives will be getting more nervous about the consequences of no-deal than others. Each will be going through their own personal agonising and each subject to pressures in their constituencies. Some will be more willing to accept an extension than others.

At the centre of all this of course is Johnson. His swashbuckling ‘Boris’ persona, his ‘get Brexit done’ election victory, and his continuing refusal to consider an extension, all suggest he’s an ultra. But he is widely seen as not particularly ideological compared to other leading Conservatives. To him what matters above all is himself and his advancement. At the heart of Boris Johnson is nothing other than Boris Johnson.

I suspect therefore that he will be going through his own agonising. The ultra ‘Boris’ has been very successful so far. But political fortunes can turn very quickly, particularly if the huge damage done by the virus in Britain rebounds back on him as it may do. And if the damage is exacerbated by a no-deal Brexit there may be no return for him (remember how John Major never recovered from crashing out the ERM in Autumn 1992). Also perhaps after being in intensive care with the virus he has had a Damascene moment and now recognises the importance of public services, the contribution of immigrants and the need for international collaboration. However I’m not holding my breath on this.

Undoubtedly some Conservative MPs and their Brexit supporters in the media and elsewhere will be agonising. The question is if, when, and how many of them come out publicly and start to make the case for an extension. Some are beginning to stir. For example on Twitter pro-Brexit commentator Isabel Oakeshotte said the virus changes everything and is ‘cool’ about an extension. Former Conservative MP and Brexit supporter Nick de Bois said that addressing the corona virus should take precedence over Brexit talks. And Lewis Goodall of BBC Newsnight said that ‘most Tory Leave MPs aren’t that fussed about an extension’ in the current circumstances. Although many extreme Brexiters reacted against Oakeshotte’s comments, the point is that it shows some pro-Brexit Conservatives are getting nervous about no-deal.

Realists may also be encouraged by public opinion which now favours an extension by around 2 to 1, though, as Prof John Curtice points out, the section of the population that was key for Johnson in December election win remains against an extension.

Overall the crisis is surely strengthening the case for realism and Conservatives calling for an extension may become more influential. I think that an extension agreed before July is more likely than it was in February, but it remains far from certain. There are still plenty of Brexit ultras in government and the Conservative party. We don’t really know how many leading Conservatives would be willing to accept, or even want no-deal and all the consequent disruption. Or whether their actions are just grandstanding to try to get the EU to back down. And it won’t be easy for realists. Johnson has created a large following and yes-men/women and sycophants among Conservative ministers (and even some senior civil servants). Will enough of them be willing to make the case for an extension? And will Johnson himself begin to have second thoughts?

Ian Bartle

This is an edited and updated version of a blog that appeared on