World·Analysis

'Incompetence': Brexit planners get it from all sides as EU divorce deadline nears

As British lawmakers return to Parliament and the deadline for a Brexit deal draws near, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and his allies appear to have orchestrated a crescendo of criticism aimed at killing the government's plan to leave the EU — and possibly unseating Prime Minister Theresa May in the process, Nahlah Ayed writes.

Former U.K. foreign secretary Boris Johnson appears to lead effort at killing government’s proposal

Former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, left, and his allies appear to have orchestrated a campaign to kill Prime Minister Theresa May's plan to leave the EU. (Thierry Charlier/Associated Press)

The closest Boris Johnson has come to British Prime Minister Theresa May recently was face to face on the cover of the Daily Express newspaper.

In reality, they're countries apart. The ex-foreign secretary gruffly resigned in July over May's proposed Brexit plan to leave the European Union, warning the U.K. was "headed for the status of a colony."

Now as lawmakers return to Parliament and the deadline for a Brexit deal draws uncomfortably near, Johnson and his allies appear to have orchestrated a crescendo of criticism aimed at killing the government's plan — and possibly unseating May in the process.

The resulting conversation has pulled in current and former lawmakers, newspapers  — even a  former head of the Bank of England who denounced the "incompetence" of everyone involved in the preparations.

The conversation has once again provoked chatter about May's longevity and Johnson's designs on her job — which his staffers continue to deny. Yet the rumours have even forced Downing Street to take an unbecoming swipe at May's boisterous foe.

The country's 2016 referendum on EU membership split Britain into two camps: leavers and remainers. Those divisions have since hardened, and now almost the only thing the two groups share is pessimism about the way Brexit is going. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

The insurrection leaves the Conservative Party as restive or worse than it was before the Brexit referendum, with Brexiteers like Johnson at times seemingly more in tune with the European Union's position than their own government's.  

Add to the cauldron the EU's own disdain for the plan on the table, with the chief Brexit negotiator apparently describing it on Tuesday as "dead," according to Tory MPs.

So with still no real sense yet of the shape or consistency of the coming Brexit — hard or soft? — many British people are stymied, whether they support Brexit or not.

Brexit fatigue

"Firstly they're bored, secondly they want it over and done with, thirdly they're not paying attention," said Joe Twyman, director of Deltapoll, an independent research and polling firm. While there are portions of the population who are closely engaged in the divisive conversation, most British people are "simply concerned about the outcome."  

It's partly what's fuelling growing calls, chiefly from remainers, for a final people's vote.

At the heart of the disagreement in the Conservative ranks is May's Chequers plan, named after Chequers Court, the PM's country residence where she presented it to her cabinet for approval.

It is a "soft" version of the impending divorce, committing the U.K. among other things to observing EU rules on the movement of goods — and as such prompting allegations it was a recipe for a Brino — a Brexit-In-Name-Only. Three ministers, including Johnson, resigned.

The Chequers deal, Johnson wrote this week, is akin to the U.K. "gone into battle with the white flag fluttering over our leading tank."

It was these words that landed Johnson the Express cover under the title "Boris v May." The question the Express poses is does his "vitriolic assault on PM's plan signal the start of an audacious bid for No. 10?"

It is a position Johnson has by many accounts long coveted. A Tory convention scheduled later this month could provide the opening, although not without a significant amount of upheaval and pain at a highly inconvenient moment.

"Every single actor involved in this, it's in their interest to make it look difficult, to make it look like they are fighting for every last inch," said Twyman. But he suspects even Conservatives who want to take down the Chequers deal are wary of bringing down the government.

'Chequers means disaster'

May could also choose to resign if her deal doesn't get the votes necessary in Parliament. Also reportedly on the table if that happens is the option of calling yet another election.

In the interim, Johnson is giving voice to Brexiteers increasingly anxious their referendum wishes aren't being respected.

"People can see Chequers means disaster," he wrote.

Backing him up are warnings that the deal could lead to the Conservative downfall at the next election — clearing the way for a Labour government under Leader Jeremy Corbyn.

In a telephone poll conducted in July and August for the Eurosceptic think-tank Global Britain, a "strong majority" of the 22,000 respondents who were eligible to vote in U.K. elections said Chequers is not a good deal, according to director Ewan Stewart. Nearly half of the respondents would vote with that top of mind, he said.

"They're pretty unhappy that the spirit of what was a formal referendum isn't really being carried through."

The poll, he said, gives Conservative MPs "some hard evidence to think carefully" about how to approach the deal as well as May's leadership.

'Canada-style' deal?

Stewart echoes Johnson and several other Tories who want what is often described here as a "Canada-style" trade deal modelled after the agreement Ottawa struck with the European Union.

"We think that sort of model provides friendly co-operation with the E.U. but external from it," said Stewart. 

The EU and the U.K. hope to have a deal by November, in time for both sides to vote by January — well ahead of the March exit deadline.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, greets May during a round table meeting at an EU summit in June while French President Emmanuel Macron looks on. European Union leaders and the U.K. hope to hash out a final Brexit deal by November. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press)

But several on the Brexiteer side now insist the November deadline is a political one and can be adjusted to allow for a revision of the existing plan — or an alternative put forward by the Brexiteer camp.

In the meantime, May's government will continue to take hits.

On Wednesday, it was on its hard Brexit planning — the measures it is putting in place in case it fails to reach a deal with the E.U. before it exits.

Among other advice, the government advised pharmacies to stockpile medicine.

On Wednesday morning, Mervyn King, a former governor of the Bank of England, said: "It beggars belief that the sixth biggest economy in the world should get itself into that position."

There's likely more where that came from.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.