Ingram Pinn illustration of Robert Shrimsley column ‘If self-interest is the measure, Boris Johnson will do a Brexit deal’
‘Boris Johnson has always placed himself first among his own creditors’ © Ingram Pinn

Life, notes one of John le Carré’s protagonists, “is duty. It’s just a question of establishing which creditor is asking the loudest”. The late novelist, who also wrote that “the privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on earth” was no fan of Brexit or Boris Johnson, but the UK prime minister often resembles one of his complex and compromised characters. 

Mr Johnson has always placed himself first among his own creditors. Conventional wisdom sees an ideologically unencumbered premier who backed Brexit out of personal ambition, unable to discern a difference between his own interest and the nation’s. This should make him easy to predict but, with just days until the end of the Brexit transition period, even allies have been unsure which way he will jump in the trade negotiations. To borrow one last le Carré-ism, we are still waiting to see the last Russian doll within his many layers.

Does he appease the Brexit ultras or will he compromise enough to prevent economic and diplomatic rupture? (It is, incidentally, a measure of just how total is the Brexiters’ victory that a flimsy deal is now regarded as the soft option and a decision not to sever trade ties, threaten maritime confrontation with your closest allies and split the two main military powers of Europe would now be considered an act of statesmanship.)

Mr Johnson does appear to believe in unimpeded sovereignty. He regularly inveighs against EU laws that he claims prevent more cycle-safe lorries or restrictions on live animal exports. Above all, he bridles at any curbs. One appointee recalls his reply when she asked how he wanted the job done: “I don’t like being told what to do.” 

For some, this is all just brinkmanship. Other Conservatives argue that he will opt for no-deal because Tory rightwingers, already angry over Covid-19 lockdowns, pose a more immediate threat to his premiership. Mr Johnson will conclude that his self-interest dictates he dances with the ones who brought him.

This argument has its merits. But Mr Johnson must know that those looking for betrayal will always find it, especially if it is the only path to their continuing relevance. Brexiters cannot allow for failure. So any problems must be because it was not a proper Brexit and Mr Johnson has sold them out or failed to prepare for no-deal. 

But for all this, Mr Johnson knows these people are not his key creditors. For a start, any revolt is containable. The absurd headlines of recent days, in which tabloids and Tory MPs salivated at the thought of maritime confrontation, have signalled a leader standing firm to the last and, to be fair, winning some concessions. Some, like Nigel Farage, the former Brexit party leader, will denounce any deal, but Mr Johnson is the primary face of brand Brexit and if he says the deal is good enough, most Leavers will accept his word. 

The greatest danger for any leader is a crisis they cannot control. A no-deal Brexit is just that. There will be disruption even with a deal, but without one the risks are legion. Aside from a maritime confrontation, a blockade of Calais, scarcity of fresh veg, a run on the pound and job losses not attributable to Covid-19, it would in effect sign the Union’s death warrant. 

Mr Johnson will recall how the chaos of Black Wednesday and the UK’s 1992 ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism destroyed in days the Tory reputation for economic competence. Recovery did not save them from electoral rout in 1997.

Brexit was never about economics, but at a time of concern about public finances the hit to growth will be instant and substantial. Mr Johnson will also have gifted Labour a coherent economic argument and a plan for a “better Brexit”. His dream of levelling up may become a nightmare of levelling down.

Last week, his manifesto author, Rachel Wolf wrote shrewdly about the need for visible improvement in rundown town centres. But the root of every thriving town is the money that comes from jobs and businesses. The true creditors are the voters he won over at the last election and they will be the losers from a bad breach. 

A messy break will also spell the end of his sketchy notion of “global Britain”. How, after all, does a nation that cannot even manage a trade deal with its closest allies expect to be an effective world player? The idea has already taken a hit with the decision to cut overseas aid spending. I am told that recent approaches to David Cameron to take over as president of COP26 foundered because of the former prime minister’s anger over the abandonment of what he considered a signature policy. 

There is one final reason for Mr Johnson to do the deal. While he hankers for new freedoms, he has yet to show he has any idea what to do with them. There is no concrete economic strategy hinging on a clean break. But there is one hinging on limited disruption. The Treasury has been alarmed at the rise of no-deal risk and the sudden demands for extra cash in mitigation.

Mr Johnson’s decision will finally reveal that last Russian doll. Is he, at the last, a pragmatist or an absolutist? True, only hardliners see much compromise in this. But if, against all logic, he chooses no deal, we may have to concede that Mr Johnson was a true believer, after all.

In this matter, though, his own needs align with the country’s. If self-interest is the yardstick, Mr Johnson will do the deal.

​Letter in response to this column:

Trade and sovereignty are inseparable bedfellows​ / ​From Charles Aldington, London SW1, UK

Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article