Brexit: May’s Strategy

So far, so good. Boris Johnson, the face of the “Out” side in last month’s Brexit referendum and now Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, got through his first encounter with the 27 other foreign ministers of European Union countries on Monday without insulting anybody.

They were gathered in Brussels for a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, and “Boris” was on his best behaviour. He didn’t call anybody a “monosyllabic Austrian cyborg” (Arnold Schwartzenegger) or “a cross-eyed Texan warmonger” (George W. Bush).

The poem he wrote in May about Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan having sex with a goat – just google Turkish President Offensive Poetry Competition – didn’t come up as there were no Turks present. There were no Russians at the Brussels meeting either, so nobody objected to his recent remark that President Vladimir Putin looks like Dobbie the House Elf.

As for John Kerry, he was the soul of tact about Johnson’s description of Hillary Clinton as a woman with “dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.” Boris is the Clown Prince of British journalism, but you have to admit that he is a very odd choice for chief British diplomat.

He wasn’t the only surprising choice that new Prime Minister Theresa May made in filling her cabinet. The man who gets the tricky job of negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union is David Davies – who as recently as two months ago thought that this could be done by making trade deals separately with each EU member. (They always negotiate as a bloc.)

But Davies was a leading Brexiteer during the referendum campaign, so he gets the job anyway. Liam Fox, the new Secretary of State for International Trade, who will have the thankless task of negotiating new trade deals with countries around the world to make up for Britain’s lost trade with Europe – deals that cannot come into effect until the UK has actually left the EU – was also a leading voice in the pro-Brexit campaign.

So May (who was in favour of “Remain”, and probably still secretly thinks it would have been the better outcome) has chosen the three most prominent Brexiteers to deal with the hugely difficult task of finding a way for the United Kingdom to leave the EU without ending up in the poor-house. Johnson, Davies and Fox are certainly not the three best negotiators for the job, so what is she up to?

One part of her strategy is obvious: “Keep your enemies close.” With the three leading Brexiteers in the cabinet, they will have less time and opportunity to plot against her. But another adage also applies: “Give your enemies enough rope, and they’ll hang themselves.”

The Brexiteers won the referendum by promising that exit from the EU would be easy and painless. So let them take charge of negotiating that exit – and let them take the blame for the very painful terms that Britain will probably have to accept as the price of leaving.

Will they be worse terms than a different negotiating team might achieve? Johnson is profoundly unpopular in Europe: France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, told French radio that Johnson “told a lot of lies to the British people and now it is him who has his back against the wall.” But a more charming (or at least less insulting) British foreign secretary would probably get the same deal. It’s not really about personalities.

The great advantage for May in having the Three Brexiteers negotiate the deal is that nobody will be able to say that a more devoted team would have got a better deal. And maybe by then she will even be able to say that the deal is so bad that the UK should have another referendum (or a general election) about it before actually leaving.

She can’t say that now, so she just says “Brexit is Brexit”. But at least two years will pass before the outcome of the exit negotiations is known, and by then many things may have changed.

The British pound may be worth even less (some suggest that it will be at par with the US dollar). The British economy will probably be in a recession, and maybe a full-scale financial crisis, as foreign investment dries up and the huge British trade deficit becomes unmanageable. Jobs will have begun to disappear in large numbers, and British voters may be in a quite different mood than they are today.

Or maybe they will be even angrier at the stupid foreigners who won’t accept that the world owes them a living. You can’t really predict how the politics will play out. But May loses nothing by letting the leading Brexiteers try to make their promises come true – and when they fail, as they inevitably will, it might even create a chance to reverse the verdict of last month’s referendum.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“One…themselves”; and “Will…personalities”)