Johnson is finally breaking with the hard Brexit ideologues. Dominic Cummings will soon quit No 10, following Lee Cain, another key fanatical Brexit aide. The new people in charge are adults: the Prime Minister’s new press secretary, who will host a daily news conference, is a former Guardian political correspondent, Allegra Stratton. She never expressed strong anti-EU views when I knew her well in the Commons.
This shakeup allows Johnson, if he so chooses, to make a grand bargain with Michel Barnier, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in 2021. This is the year Johnson hosts the COP climate change global conference, dear to President-elect Joe Biden, in Glasgow. It is the year of crucial elections in May: for the Scottish Parliament, for all big and small cities, for 150 major town councils. It is the year of preparations for the Queen’s 70th anniversary on the throne in 2022. It is the year of the Merkel succession election in Germany. And it is the year when a vaccine arrives to defeat Covid. All this gives Johnson an opportunity to treat 2021 as a year of successful government, not one dominated by the daily crisis of Brexit fall-outs.
A move to pause Brexit would be hailed as an act of post-Trump statesmanship by Barnier, Macron, Merkel, all British business, the City, civil society, universities, creative artists, regional/local government and by all of the UK’s main partners around the world. Rupert Murdoch, who will want to stay friendly with President Biden at least in the early months of his presidency, will not object and the other Tory papers will hail Johnson’s leadership. A pause does not challenge the principle of Brexit — leaving the EU — but avoids crisis and confrontation.
There would be rejoicing in Dublin at this British initiative. It would shoot the SNP fox as the Scottish separatists need a Brexit crisis to justify their anti-London crusade. It would cause problems for Labour, as Sir Keir Starmer has no Brexit policy except to say that Johnson cannot manage it. But if Johnson shows he can and has avoided a crash-out disaster then Labour is left without much to say.
There are legal problems, of course. But if the Commission, Council and Parliament understand that this is a major climbdown by the Farage faction in the Tory Party, with its key organiser – Dominic Cummings and his aides – quitting, then the lawyers can do what they can always do and find forms of words to allow time out to work on an effective Brexit deal in 2021. Meanwhile, the current status quo would be extended, so there are no economic, trade or people movement disruptions or any threat to the Good Friday Agreement.
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