Boris Johnson’s cabinet on Sunday formed a protective circle around the UK prime minister, insisting they would back him if he opted for a no-deal Brexit and plunged the country into renewed economic uncertainty.
The apparent insouciance of Mr Johnson’s ministers, including former Remainers, about the prospect of a no-deal end to Britain’s relationship with the EU on January 1 has alarmed business leaders, with some sectors warning of an impending catastrophe.
But over the weekend, as Brexit trade talks ran aground, ministers lined up to tell the Sunday Times newspaper that the cabinet was “100 per cent” behind the prime minister. Aides were barred from speaking to the press: the message to Brussels was “don’t mess with us”.
Privately, pro-Remain ministers say they would not be so sanguine if they were not convinced that Mr Johnson was going to agree a deal. Some Treasury officials remain equally certain that the paroxysms in the negotiations are a prelude to a deal.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has privately made it clear to the prime minister what is at stake economically if no trade deal is in place, even if publicly he insists the country could cope.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, has warned that a disorderly Brexit would fuel demands for Scottish independence, as well as worsening what is already expected to be chaos at the EU border on January 1.
But even those close to Mr Johnson are not certain he will heed the political and economic warnings. For a prime minister with a lack of interest in detail and a passionate interest in notions of “sovereignty” he is keeping Brussels and his own supporters guessing to the last minute.
Private polling shown to the prime minister suggests that the public would be willing to support a no-deal exit, according to Number 10 insiders, “provided we can show we were standing up for our sovereignty”. Mr Johnson’s fascination for Winston Churchill standing alone in 1940 is well known.
Peter Mandelson, former Labour minister and EU trade commissioner, thinks there will be a deal, but said: “I think he’s divided in his own mind where the national interest lies. A bit of him does think that national interest lies in sovereignty and making our own way in the world.”
The economic implications of no deal were set out by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility last month, which said it would knock 2 per cent off gross domestic product next year — about £40bn — and that 300,000 people would pay with their jobs by next summer.
“I think the long-term effects would be larger than the long-term effects of Covid,” Andrew Bailey, Bank of England governor, told the Treasury select committee last month. Josh Hardie, deputy head of the CBI employers’ organisation, said “things look very stark” without a deal.
The impact on individual sectors would also be grave, as tariffs and quotas were laid on top of the red tape that has already been spawned by Mr Johnson’s decision to take Britain out of the customs union and single market.
Minette Batters, head of the National Farmers Union, has warned the impact on the farming sector would be “catastrophic” — lamb producers could face tariffs of 40 per cent on their exports — while carmakers speak of a “no-deal Brexit disaster” with 10 per cent tariffs facing that sector.
The European Commission has also warned that “failing to reach an agreement would lead to disruptions that would be more far-reaching” than the inevitable changes that come with Britain leaving the single market.
Failure would also jeopardise co-operation between EU and UK researchers in vital areas such as healthcare, while scuppering arrangements intended to ensure cross-border workers can claim benefits and plan for their retirement.
The draft deal would also help smooth customs checks, uphold a cross-border energy market and ensure trade in civil nuclear materials can continue. Outside of economic matters, a collapse in the talks would threaten a planned security partnership.
Ultimately, if no deal is secured this week, Mr Johnson will find himself back in Brussels in the coming years trying to strike patchwork deals with the EU and probably a trade deal too. Rather than turning a page on Brexit, the saga would continue.
The drama at the negotiating table might well be interpreted as the inevitable showdown before Mr Johnson strikes a deal, as he seeks to delete “eleventh hour” demands from the EU to demonstrate he is fighting to the end. He needs to be able to sell a deal to his own party.
David Gauke, a former cabinet minister, wrote on the ConservativeHome website: “The Conservative party has become less disciplined and more comfortable with the politics of protest. In some respects, Boris Johnson is a natural leader for such a party — a columnist and controversialist; an insurgent rather than an administrator.”