What if Boris Johnson’s goal isn’t what we’ve presumed it is?

The Queen is due to give her assent today to a bill passed by the Commons and the Lords requiring Boris Johnson to request a delay to Brexit.[1] This is generally understood as a massive defeat for Johnson[2] who has been inanely propelling the country towards a hard Brexit.[3]

On Sunday night, a Cabinet source told The Telegraph: “There is a prescribed letter that has to be sent… Does that stop the Prime Minister sending other documents to the EU? I don’t think it does.

“A political explainer perhaps, as to where the Government’s policy is. It has to make clear that the Government is asking for an extension, but let’s not forget what the next step is.

“Once that is done, the Europeans are going to ask: ‘Why? What is the reason?’ [What] if the Government said: ‘We don’t have any reasons for an extension’?

“There is a clear path now: the Europeans need to refuse an extension.” . . .

A Downing Street source said: “We intend to sabotage any extension. The Surrender Bill only kicks in if an extension is offered. Once people realise our plans, there is a good chance we won’t be offered a delay. Even if we are, we intend to sabotage that too.”[4]

Meanwhile, the European Union is getting frustrated with the lack of concrete proposals for an alternative to the Irish backstop from Boris Johnson’s government, which in turn blames the E.U. for being likely to reject any proposal out of hand.[5] The reality, of course, is that there is no realistic alternative to the Irish backstop.[6] So of course Johnson’s government can’t come up with one.

Which means that catastrophe[7] is still the likely outcome. A couple of Guardian stories treat the French threat to refuse an extension as unlikely,[8] but even if this is so, it really only affects the timing. Shall we begin our catastrophe on Halloween? Or perhaps at the end of January? Or April maybe?

This really is the one point that Johnson gets right. There might indeed be no mandate for “no deal.”[9] Indeed as the First Minister of Wales memorably put it,

There’s a lot of debate about democratic legitimacy and respecting referendums. There’s a democratic issue here for an incoming prime minister [Boris Johnson] where no deal was never on any ballot paper and where in Scotland and Wales his party has not won a majority of seats in any form of election in living memory.[10]

But this is a Parliament that has utterly failed to agree on anything Brexit,[11] with the sole exception being that it doesn’t want a hard (“no deal”) Brexit.[12] I can’t help but think a general election, which Johnson is now calling for[13] and the opposition is resisting until it can be sure he won’t use the delay to let a hard Brexit come into effect[14] by default,[15] will merely reshuffle the cards. It fails to actually ask the real question: Which of these options, each of which a large portion of the electorate hates, enjoys the least opposition?

Parliament’s humiliation of its Prime Minister[16] has been a magnificent show. But his government’s vow to sabotage the request for an extension and any extension it nonetheless receives,[17] in combination with what Johnson has to by now know is the utter absence of a plausible alternative to the backstop,[18] really gives away the game: Johnson is choosing a hard Brexit. He is choosing absolute calamity.[19]

One of the most cogent critiques of game theory is that it presumes players’ goals. You can actually and utterly defeat a game theory prediction as to what you’ll do simply by choosing a different priority from what the game theorist expects.

I’ve been calling Johnson a lousy poker player. And it’s hard to see how his fortunes improve with an absolute disaster, indeed from crashing the British bicycle into a brick wall.[20] But the far-right Brexit Party beckons.[21] At some point you have to ask, what is his game?

Because the idea that he’s aiming for a prosperous and still united United Kingdom simply doesn’t make sense anymore.

  1. [1]Deutschewelle, “Brexit: House of Lords approves bill to block no deal,” September 6, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/brexit-house-of-lords-approves-bill-to-block-no-deal/a-50331382
  2. [2]Charlie Cooper, Annabelle Dickson, and Emilio Casalicchio, “Boris Johnson loses control,” Politico, September 4, 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/boris-johnson-loses-control-brexit/; Heather Stewart and Severin Carrell, “Boris Johnson short of options as rebels vow to secure Brexit delay,” Guardian, September 7, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/06/boris-johnson-short-of-options-as-rebels-vow-to-secure-brexit-delay; Kevin Sullivan and Karla Adam, “Britain may face snap elections after Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffers major loss in Parliament,” Washington Post, September 3, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/showdown-set-for-the-british-parliament-as-legislators-return-from-summer-recess/2019/09/03/105ecca6-cb6c-11e9-9615-8f1a32962e04_story.html; Kevin Sullivan and Karla Adam, “Boris Johnson suffers two major losses in Parliament, leaving his governing authority and the terms of Brexit in doubt,” Washington Post, September 4, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/uk-parliament-brexit-vote/2019/09/04/cc934b1c-cb6d-11e9-9615-8f1a32962e04_story.html
  3. [3]David Benfell, “The world’s worst poker player, on a jet-powered bicycle at full throttle toward a brick wall,” Not Housebroken, September 3, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/09/03/the-worlds-worst-poker-player-on-a-jet-powered-bicycle-at-full-throttle-toward-a-brick-wall/
  4. [4]Harry Yorke, “Boris Johnson draws up plan to legally stop Brexit extension if MPs vote against general election,” Telegraph, September 8, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/09/08/boris-johnson-draws-plan-legally-stop-brexit-extension-mps-vote/
  5. [5]Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin, “France threatens to veto further Brexit extension,” Guardian, September 8, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/08/france-threatens-to-veto-further-brexit-extension
  6. [6]Karla Adam and William Booth, “Could Boris Johnson’s ‘no-deal’ Brexit break up the United Kingdom?” Washington Post, July 29, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/could-boris-johnsons-no-deal-brexit-crack-up-the-united-kingdom/2019/07/29/b871ebac-b1e6-11e9-acc8-1d847bacca73_story.html; Daniel Boffey, “However you look at it, the logic of a Brexit backstop refuses to yield,” Guardian, June 24, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jun/24/however-look-logic-brexit-backstop-refuses-to-yield-irish; British Broadcasting Corporation, “Irish deputy PM Coveney: No deal Brexit would mean customs checks in Ireland,” July 21, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-politics-49062367/irish-deputy-pm-coveney-no-deal-brexit-would-mean-customs-checks-in-ireland; Amanda Ferguson and William Booth, “Northern Ireland’s politicians don’t agree on much. Except that Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit would be a disaster,” Washington Post, July 31, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/northern-irelands-politicians-dont-agree-on-much-except-that-boris-johnsons-no-deal-brexit-would-be-a-disaster/2019/07/31/c209affa-b2eb-11e9-acc8-1d847bacca73_story.html; Peter Foster and Camilla Tominey, “Boris Johnson warned that ‘no deal’ Brexit will require return of ‘direct rule’ in Northern Ireland,” Telegraph, July 26, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/07/26/boris-johnson-warned-no-deal-brexit-will-require-return-direct/; Katy Hayward, “Can technology and ‘max fac’ solve the Irish border question? Expert explains,” Conversation, May 23, 2018, http://theconversation.com/can-technology-and-max-fac-solve-the-irish-border-question-expert-explains-96735; Conor Humphries, “Irish PM says hard Brexit would raise issue of Irish unification,” Telegraph, July 27, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-ireland-nireland-idUSKCN1UL280; Séamas O’Reilly, “Hard Brexiters’ stance on the Irish border is nonsense – I can tell you, I grew up there,” Guardian, August 7, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/07/northern-ireland-hard-border-brexit-customs; Kate Proctor, “Irish border after Brexit – all ideas are beset by issues says secret paper,” Guardian, September 2, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/02/irish-border-after-brexit-all-ideas-beset-by-issues; Steven Swinford and Henry Zeffman, “Backstop protects stability in Ireland, Macron tells PM,” Times, August 22, 2019, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/find-an-alternative-to-irish-backstop-and-brexit-deal-is-possible-angela-merkel-tells-boris-johnson-dmtfzf9gz
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Boris Johnson might think he’s playing poker with the European Union, but he’s actually playing ‘chicken’—with a brick wall,” Not Housebroken, August 2, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/02/boris-johnson-might-think-hes-playing-poker-with-the-european-union-but-hes-actually-playing-chicken-with-a-brick-wall/; Michael Savage and Daniel Boffey, “No-deal Brexit spells calamity for union, warns Gordon Brown,” Guardian, August 10, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/aug/10/gordon-brown-says-no-deal-brexit-would-be-calamity-for-united-kingdom; Tim Wallace, “‘Very real’ recession risk as economy contracts for first time in seven years,” Telegraph, August 9, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2019/08/09/recession-risk-now-real-economy-contracts-first-time-seven-years/
  8. [8]Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin, “France threatens to veto further Brexit extension,” Guardian, September 8, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/08/france-threatens-to-veto-further-brexit-extension; Peter Walker, “Six ways Boris Johnson could evade block on no-deal Brexit,” Guardian, September 9, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/09/six-ways-boris-johnson-could-evade-block-on-no-deal-brexit
  9. [9]Steven Morris, “No-deal Brexit would endanger rural life, says Welsh leader,” Guardian, July 30, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/30/no-deal-brexit-would-endanger-rural-way-of-life-says-welsh-leader
  10. [10]Mark Drakeford, quoted in Steven Morris, “No-deal Brexit would endanger rural life, says Welsh leader,” Guardian, July 30, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/30/no-deal-brexit-would-endanger-rural-way-of-life-says-welsh-leader
  11. [11]Jack Maidment, “Brexit latest news: Theresa May’s deal defeated again by 58 votes – PM hints at general election to break deadlock,” Telegraph, March 29, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/03/29/brexit-latest-news-theresa-may-final-push-mps-prepare-vote-withdrawal/; Peter Walker, “Could parliament’s latest amendment stop no-deal Brexit?” Guardian, July 18, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/18/could-parliaments-latest-amendment-stop-no-deal-brexit; Josh Wilson, “No-deal Brexit odds: Latest predictions on leaving the EU without a deal,” Telegraph, August 2, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/0/no-deal-brexit-odds-latest-predictions-leaving-eu-without-deal/
  12. [12]Charlie Cooper, Annabelle Dickson, and Emilio Casalicchio, “Boris Johnson loses control,” Politico, September 4, 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/boris-johnson-loses-control-brexit/; Deutschewelle, “Brexit: House of Lords approves bill to block no deal,” September 6, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/brexit-house-of-lords-approves-bill-to-block-no-deal/a-50331382; Heather Stewart and Severin Carrell, “Boris Johnson short of options as rebels vow to secure Brexit delay,” Guardian, September 7, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/06/boris-johnson-short-of-options-as-rebels-vow-to-secure-brexit-delay; Kevin Sullivan and Karla Adam, “Britain may face snap elections after Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffers major loss in Parliament,” Washington Post, September 3, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/showdown-set-for-the-british-parliament-as-legislators-return-from-summer-recess/2019/09/03/105ecca6-cb6c-11e9-9615-8f1a32962e04_story.html; Kevin Sullivan and Karla Adam, “Boris Johnson suffers two major losses in Parliament, leaving his governing authority and the terms of Brexit in doubt,” Washington Post, September 4, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/uk-parliament-brexit-vote/2019/09/04/cc934b1c-cb6d-11e9-9615-8f1a32962e04_story.html
  13. [13]Kevin Sullivan and Karla Adam, “Britain may face snap elections after Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffers major loss in Parliament,” Washington Post, September 3, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/showdown-set-for-the-british-parliament-as-legislators-return-from-summer-recess/2019/09/03/105ecca6-cb6c-11e9-9615-8f1a32962e04_story.html
  14. [14]Deutschewelle, “Brexit: House of Lords approves bill to block no deal,” September 6, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/brexit-house-of-lords-approves-bill-to-block-no-deal/a-50331382; Francis Elliott and Oliver Wright, “Moderates attack Boris Johnson after Tory rebels have whip removed,” Times, September 4, 2019, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/tory-rebels-defy-boris-johnson-in-historic-vote-hbnhhpzh7;
  15. [15]Jack Maidment, “Brexit latest news: Theresa May’s deal defeated again by 58 votes – PM hints at general election to break deadlock,” Telegraph, March 29, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/03/29/brexit-latest-news-theresa-may-final-push-mps-prepare-vote-withdrawal/; Peter Walker, “Could parliament’s latest amendment stop no-deal Brexit?” Guardian, July 18, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/18/could-parliaments-latest-amendment-stop-no-deal-brexit; Josh Wilson, “No-deal Brexit odds: Latest predictions on leaving the EU without a deal,” Telegraph, August 2, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/0/no-deal-brexit-odds-latest-predictions-leaving-eu-without-deal/
  16. [16]Charlie Cooper, Annabelle Dickson, and Emilio Casalicchio, “Boris Johnson loses control,” Politico, September 4, 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/boris-johnson-loses-control-brexit/; Deutschewelle, “Brexit: House of Lords approves bill to block no deal,” September 6, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/brexit-house-of-lords-approves-bill-to-block-no-deal/a-50331382; Heather Stewart and Severin Carrell, “Boris Johnson short of options as rebels vow to secure Brexit delay,” Guardian, September 7, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/06/boris-johnson-short-of-options-as-rebels-vow-to-secure-brexit-delay; Kevin Sullivan and Karla Adam, “Britain may face snap elections after Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffers major loss in Parliament,” Washington Post, September 3, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/showdown-set-for-the-british-parliament-as-legislators-return-from-summer-recess/2019/09/03/105ecca6-cb6c-11e9-9615-8f1a32962e04_story.html; Kevin Sullivan and Karla Adam, “Boris Johnson suffers two major losses in Parliament, leaving his governing authority and the terms of Brexit in doubt,” Washington Post, September 4, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/uk-parliament-brexit-vote/2019/09/04/cc934b1c-cb6d-11e9-9615-8f1a32962e04_story.html
  17. [17]Peter Walker, “Six ways Boris Johnson could evade block on no-deal Brexit,” Guardian, September 9, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/09/six-ways-boris-johnson-could-evade-block-on-no-deal-brexit; Harry Yorke, “Boris Johnson draws up plan to legally stop Brexit extension if MPs vote against general election,” Telegraph, September 8, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/09/08/boris-johnson-draws-plan-legally-stop-brexit-extension-mps-vote/
  18. [18]Karla Adam and William Booth, “Could Boris Johnson’s ‘no-deal’ Brexit break up the United Kingdom?” Washington Post, July 29, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/could-boris-johnsons-no-deal-brexit-crack-up-the-united-kingdom/2019/07/29/b871ebac-b1e6-11e9-acc8-1d847bacca73_story.html; Daniel Boffey, “However you look at it, the logic of a Brexit backstop refuses to yield,” Guardian, June 24, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jun/24/however-look-logic-brexit-backstop-refuses-to-yield-irish; British Broadcasting Corporation, “Irish deputy PM Coveney: No deal Brexit would mean customs checks in Ireland,” July 21, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-politics-49062367/irish-deputy-pm-coveney-no-deal-brexit-would-mean-customs-checks-in-ireland; Amanda Ferguson and William Booth, “Northern Ireland’s politicians don’t agree on much. Except that Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit would be a disaster,” Washington Post, July 31, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/northern-irelands-politicians-dont-agree-on-much-except-that-boris-johnsons-no-deal-brexit-would-be-a-disaster/2019/07/31/c209affa-b2eb-11e9-acc8-1d847bacca73_story.html; Peter Foster and Camilla Tominey, “Boris Johnson warned that ‘no deal’ Brexit will require return of ‘direct rule’ in Northern Ireland,” Telegraph, July 26, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/07/26/boris-johnson-warned-no-deal-brexit-will-require-return-direct/; Katy Hayward, “Can technology and ‘max fac’ solve the Irish border question? Expert explains,” Conversation, May 23, 2018, http://theconversation.com/can-technology-and-max-fac-solve-the-irish-border-question-expert-explains-96735; Conor Humphries, “Irish PM says hard Brexit would raise issue of Irish unification,” Telegraph, July 27, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-eu-ireland-nireland-idUSKCN1UL280; Séamas O’Reilly, “Hard Brexiters’ stance on the Irish border is nonsense – I can tell you, I grew up there,” Guardian, August 7, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/07/northern-ireland-hard-border-brexit-customs; Kate Proctor, “Irish border after Brexit – all ideas are beset by issues says secret paper,” Guardian, September 2, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/02/irish-border-after-brexit-all-ideas-beset-by-issues; Steven Swinford and Henry Zeffman, “Backstop protects stability in Ireland, Macron tells PM,” Times, August 22, 2019, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/find-an-alternative-to-irish-backstop-and-brexit-deal-is-possible-angela-merkel-tells-boris-johnson-dmtfzf9gz
  19. [19]David Benfell, “Boris Johnson might think he’s playing poker with the European Union, but he’s actually playing ‘chicken’—with a brick wall,” Not Housebroken, August 2, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/02/boris-johnson-might-think-hes-playing-poker-with-the-european-union-but-hes-actually-playing-chicken-with-a-brick-wall/; Michael Savage and Daniel Boffey, “No-deal Brexit spells calamity for union, warns Gordon Brown,” Guardian, August 10, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/aug/10/gordon-brown-says-no-deal-brexit-would-be-calamity-for-united-kingdom; Tim Wallace, “‘Very real’ recession risk as economy contracts for first time in seven years,” Telegraph, August 9, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2019/08/09/recession-risk-now-real-economy-contracts-first-time-seven-years/
  20. [20]David Benfell, “Boris Johnson might think he’s playing poker with the European Union, but he’s actually playing ‘chicken’—with a brick wall,” Not Housebroken, August 2, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/02/boris-johnson-might-think-hes-playing-poker-with-the-european-union-but-hes-actually-playing-chicken-with-a-brick-wall/; Michael Savage and Daniel Boffey, “No-deal Brexit spells calamity for union, warns Gordon Brown,” Guardian, August 10, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/aug/10/gordon-brown-says-no-deal-brexit-would-be-calamity-for-united-kingdom; Tim Wallace, “‘Very real’ recession risk as economy contracts for first time in seven years,” Telegraph, August 9, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2019/08/09/recession-risk-now-real-economy-contracts-first-time-seven-years/
  21. [21]Danielle Sheridan, “Nigel Farage warns Boris Johnson Brexit Party can be ‘his best friend or worst enemy,’” Telegraph, August 27, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/08/27/nigel-farage-will-fight-general-election-warns-boris-johnson/

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