I can’t imagine why Johnson ever thought he could “bury” Brexit, especially when he seems to be in some disarray about how he will celebrate the end of the first phase on 31 January.
But the main reason why he is unlikely to get away with it lies in his own hands or, to be more blunt, his failure to turn the next phase into a boring routine, so tedious that the media won’t bother to follow it.
Having been adamant throughout the election campaign that the UK would secure a “fantastic” deal, telling everybody that the chance of no-deal was “absolutely zero”, he has now admitted to BBC Breakfast television that there is a “slim chance” that the UK won’t make it before his self-imposed December 2020 deadline.
Needless to say, he is keen to say that it was “epically likely” it would happen, which is about as convincing as a surgeon telling you “it won’t hurt”, just as he is about to saw off a limb without anaesthetic – having drunk all the whiskey to steady his nerves for the operation.
What Johnson has done therefore is inject just the necessary amount of “will he, won’t he?” uncertainty to give it legs as a media story, allowing endless speculation as to the outcome of the coming talks.
It also sets the scene for a nail-biting drama in December, as the talks go to the wire, giving him a platform to announce another famous victory, artfully avoiding questions about the content.
You can see the dynamic at play when the Financial Times reports this development as “likely to cause concern in the business community”, which supposedly “fears that if no deal is in place then Britain will have to start trading with the EU on WTO terms in January 2021, with tariffs, paperwork and delays at ports”.
This, of course, nicely distracts attention from what should be the real concern – that Johnson, as he himself avers, is likely to get a deal, but a very poor one which will cause no end of problems in the longer term. To that extent, it is the fact that there will be a deal which should really be worrying business, given that it is most likely going to be a slow-motion train crash.
But you can also sense where Johnson is going with this, having told BBC Breakfast that, although there was it was “very, very, very likely” a deal would be done, he accepted that “you always have to budget for a complete failure of common sense”. Without having to read between the lines very much, it is fairly evident that he holds himself as the reservoir of “common sense”, and thus any failure will be down to the intransigence of the European Union.
That remark, however, will not have gone unnoticed in Brussels, especially as stage Irishman Phil Hogan is sounding off yet again, with another of those statements of the bleedin’ obvious. This time, to an audience in the United States, he is accusing Johnson of “brinkmanship” complaining that the UK’s approach to negotiations was creating “uncertainty” for business.
Once again, this rather misses the point as the problem for business is not so much the uncertainty – even if there is plenty of that – but the certainty. The entire business community can be pretty well assured that they will be something delivered on their plates, but it will most likely be a steaming pile of crap.
Undeterred, Hogan is warning that the short timeframe “puts enormous pressure on the UK system, and then of course on the EU system” to meet the deadline, and adds that it would be legally very difficult for Britain to change its mind and request an extension later on, after the 1 July extension deadline expires, even if it became clear to both sides that more time was needed.
Given the propensity of the EU to break its own rules, there must be few people seriously ruling out the possibility of a fudge. Doubtless, the best minds in Brussels are already working on a formula which might buy more time, possibly involving the creative use of vocabulary, where we get an extension by any other name which produces a “non-transition” to cover the period of the no-extension.
Nevertheless, Hogan is adamant that “We need to wake up to this reality that gamesmanship and brinkmanship is not going to work on this occasion”, referring to the brinkmanship that worked last time round, if only for the EU. And if it worked once, then the EU will hardly be adverse to trying it again, right up to the point when it ceases to deny that it is possible.
The bigger problem that the EU has – even it hasn’t fully realised it yet – is that Johnson probably doesn’t want an extension, as any price. Worse still, he shows every sign of being entirely indifferent to the shape of an EU-UK agreement, beyond the vague aspiration of seeking an abolition of tariffs and quotas.
Thus, the only response we’ve had from UK officials is that Hogan’s warnings, and the rest of the “noise” from Brussels, is a negotiating tactic intended to lure the UK into requesting an extension. And since that would require the UK to make extra contributions to the EU budget and to continue applying all European law for an extended period, the answer is set to remain, no thank you very much.
As this ritual dance progresses, though, the legacy media never fails to disappoint, keeping up its reputation for embracing the lowest common denominator, focusing its attention on the so-called “battle of the bongs”, as Johnson sparks a surge of fruitless donations in an attempt to get Big Ben chiming on 31 January.
For so many of us who have worked decades on campaigning to leave the EU, it was always on the cards that we should look to some sort of celebration to mark our formal passage from the “evil empire”.
I would have thought that a chain of beacons, from one end of the nation to the other, might have been the appropriate activity, each bonfire attended by copious consumption of alcoholic beverages, pork pies and mushy peas. Only Farage could think that a party in Parliament Square was a good substitute.
Once again, though – and rather ironically – the leaden blanket of uncertainty has cast its dire effect. With no way of telling until the last moment that we were really going to leave, after so many false starts it has not been possibly to organise a genuine community response from the heart of England.
But, given the botched process so far, with little prospect of anything better, for most of us – including Eurosceptic die-hards, 11pm on 31 January will be a sombre moment of reflection. We may take such comfort as we can from the fact that we have achieved a lifetime’s ambition of actually leaving the EU.