Boris Johnson is about to bring back the worst deal in history – it takes a special kind of talent to do that

We may be about to get a Brexit ‘deal’ that represents the worst of all worlds. Maybe no deal really is better than a bad deal after all

Brexit trade deal: What are the main sticking points?

Remember when we used to mock the idea that “no deal is better than a bad deal”? Theresa May’s most famous soundbite, possibly her only memorable one, was part empty slogan (to appease her Eurosceptic troublemakers), part empty threat (to supposedly terrify the EU) and part decision avoidance technique, because she had no more idea of what she wanted from Europe than her predecessor or indeed her successor.  

But something strange may now be happening: Boris Johnson’s unique style of negotiating and his formidable reputation for being untrustworthy are combining to turn May’s vacuous words into hard economic and political fact. We may be about to get a Brexit “deal” that represents the worst of all worlds; costly and deeply damaging obstacles to trade with Europe will be imposed; but with little real freedom in return for the UK to forge a new economic future for itself.

For if Johnson does extract some sort of so-called “free trade deal” from the European Union, as he must surely wish to, then it will be very thin indeed, and very far from business as usual as we’ve known it for almost a half a century. We might well avoid tariffs and quotas – undeniably terrible for business and consumers – but very many other “frictions” would remain. Rules of origin, for example, where companies have to prove that something really is “British”, would have to be obeyed; various customs declarations and certifications adhered to; there’d be inevitable delays to exports and imports, even after the initial chaos, with days and days of production lost waiting for stuff; some goods and services simply no longer allowed into the EU because they fail some rule or other; UK professional qualifications not automatically recognised; European companies and governments free to discriminate against British workers and organisations.  

All of these would add complexity and cost, and ultimately cost British jobs, even if tariffs and quotas are avoided. They’re called “non-tariff” barriers, and can work much more viciously to restrict trade, in fact, than a small tax or tariff.  

So the so-called EU-UK Partnership Agreement would not be a “fantastic” deal, no matter what Johnson will undoubtedly claim in that hyperventilated way of his. It would negate the very point of Brexit, a Brexit that no one can now stop because it’s already happened, formally and legally.

And what would be the price the British would have to pay for such narrow and uncertain access to the EU single market? To obey its rules of course, perfectly reasonably. Because Johnson has demonstrated time and again he cannot be trusted – notoriously when he openly broke the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement – the EU has decided to tie the UK down to its obligations. Again, that is perfectly reasonable on its part, but it will restrict Britain’s freedom of action. No leeway will be given, because the Europeans have rumbled Johnson’s game – to have his cake and eat it.  

Whatever spins are applied and euphemisms deployed to the jargon of “dynamic alignment”, the situation under the Johnson deal would probably be that the British government would have to run the British economy effectively according to EU rules – or else we get tariffs anyway. So instead of Britain having all the advantages of the EU single market but none of the disadvantages, as was promised back by the Leave campaign in 2016, it will instead end up with all the disadvantages of rule by the EU Commission, but none of the advantages of automatic frictionless access to the world’s largest single market.  

It takes a unique diplomatic talent to contrive such a disadvantageous situation, but somehow Johnson has done it. He is on the brink of bringing back from Brussels the worst deal in history.  

Given that continued EU membership is obviously not an option, and that the option of some kind of Norway-style soft Brexit has long since been abandoned, it is worth asking afresh whether Johnson’s miserable likely deal really is better than no deal. It probably would be better in the short to medium term, because many more jobs would be lost with tariffs and quotas slammed on British exports. But in the longer term the British have to have that freedom to outcompete Europe in the industries of the future – artificial intelligence, pharmaceutical research, fintech and many as yet undreamed-of technologies. Without that Brexit is useless.  

Maybe we should have known that all along, but it’s too late to stop it now. We have to take the world as we find it and make the best of a bad job. No deal may be better than a bad deal after all, you know.

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