To understand the choices Boris Johnson makes when he reaches a fork in the road, it helps to imagine the speeches he might draft in praise of each path. We know he has the verbal dexterity. In 2016, unsure whether to come out for or against Brexit, Johnson drafted two contradictory newspaper columns. He preferred the sound of himself as a leaver.
The tune was catchier in those days. It was the oompah freedom march, and Johnson sang the lead. Now he is prime minister and Brexit is a cacophony of customs declarations and standards certifications. The compromise required to keep healthy relations with Britain’s neighbours does not harmonise with the Eurosceptic melody of purest sovereignty.
Time is running out to complete the free-trade deal that might enact those compromises. Even with a deal there is a shock coming when transitional arrangements expire on 1 January. The shock is double if negotiations collapse. The border is not ready and there will be no goodwill on the European Union side to finesse Britain’s administrative shambles; no flex as the UK grapples with the bureaucracy it has elected to impose on itself. It is the difference between a hard landing and a crash landing.
Although the only kind of deal left is a paltry one, Johnson could still pitch it in heroic terms. The doomsters have been proved wrong, he would gloat. They said it would take 10 years; we did it in 10 months. Now we lay down the sword of strife and beat it into a ploughshare for the fertile soil of global trade. Etc.
The opposite speech would also come easily to Johnson’s lips: a deal, alas, has not been reached. We extended a friendly hand but Brussels wanted to put it in cuffs of regulatory bondage. Our sovereignty is not for sale. Choppy waters ahead! But our vessel is sturdy and we have the wind of liberty at our back …
A rational audit of economic and strategic national interests points the prime minister to the first of those scenarios. But there are other factors in the equation Downing Street is trying to solve. The limits of tolerable compromise are set by fundamentalist Eurosceptic doctrine and fear of a Conservative party that is already made restive by the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.
Fishing quotas and coronavirus regulations might not seem related, but both ignite fury on the Tory backbenches. No 10 could do without having to fight two fires at once. Through incompetence and supercilious neglect, Johnson has alienated so many of his MPs that even an 80-seat majority is no cushion against Commons defeat. That vulnerability could tempt him to embrace an almighty row with Brussels. He would not be the first Tory leader to follow the advice of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”.
But that path looks less attractive in light of Donald Trump’s defeat in the US presidential election. Joe Biden saw Brexit as a strategic error from the start and sees Johnson as a Trumpian acolyte. The significance of that perspective can be overstated. Much of the transatlantic partnership happens on the level of security policy, mediated by agencies and institutions that carry on regardless of personalities in the White House and Downing Street.
Still, there is an immediate problem in the dim view Biden takes of Johnson’s disregard for international law, as advertised in a bill repudiating the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. The new president-elect sees that as sabotage of the Good Friday agreement, which is foul play in the eyes of any democrat and a personal affront to a Democratic Irish-American who takes his ancestry seriously.
Trump was an enemy of the European project, so his downfall makes Brexit a lonelier adventure in the world. It raises the cost of failure to agree a deal in Brussels. Johnson would quickly be embroiled in a row over Irish border obligations. Washington would take Dublin’s side as the underdog, being bullied by Britain turned rogue.
Gone is the idea that a quick transatlantic trade deal will make up for the loss of access to EU markets. (The numbers never added up on that proposition, but it had theological importance to Brexiteers.) Instead, completing a European deal becomes the prerequisite for getting talks in Washington back on track. That is a point that No 10 might use to bring backbench fanatics on board over any compromises Johnson makes in Brussels. The line will be that imperfect accommodation with the EU is the ordeal Britain must endure to fulfil its Grail Quest for a US deal.
But there is also a risk that the EU side reads too much into Trump’s defeat and, presuming a chastened, friendless Britain has no room left for manoeuvre, fails to choreograph some face-saving concession for Johnson.
If it looks as if Brussels is dictating terms, the Tory leader will feel cornered and switch into combat mode. He is not afraid of a messy Brexit. The outcome he most wants to avoid is one where the mess is no one’s fault but his own. Even with a deal, the border situation will not look pretty. There will be no upside, except from the claim that it could have been even worse. By contrast, the no-deal scenario provides a lever for offloading blame on to the French.
Whichever path he takes, the priority will be deflecting attention from the fact that there were no good options left, because sensible exits were missed along the road. That might play well with some of Johnson’s most loyal supporters, but there is also a downside to the war of recrimination if talks fail. It would be the more spectacular story, propelling Brexit higher up the agenda and keeping it there longer. The whole thing would too obviously not have been “done”, in flagrant breach of the promise that won Johnson an election last year.
He does not want any more of his time in office consumed by Europe, and he has used up all of his Blitz spirit on the pandemic. As the anniversary of his poll victory approaches, he would surely rather declare “mission accomplished” than face the country with yet more excuses, warnings of turbulence ahead and pleas for stoic forbearance.
The prime minister has two lenses for looking at Brexit. He can focus on busking through a current crisis, or he can gaze on a distant horizon where future generations enjoy the fruits of emancipation from Brussels. It is either getting through the day, or getting to the moon. There is no view of the middle-distance, where leaving the EU is a task of responsible government.
That leaves Britain without any meaningful policy for a future relationship with the rest of Europe. Expressing one would require some admission of diplomatic and economic gravity, and denial of those forces is too fundamental to Eurosceptic mythology. That will not change, regardless of whether the current negotiations result in compromise or collapse in acrimony. There are two very different speeches forming in Johnson’s mind right now. Neither of them contains the truth.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist