Call us

Boris Johnson’s brinkmanship: To the cliff edge or beyond?

Fabian Zuleeg , Jannike Wachowiak

Date: 03/12/2020
Time is running out to finalise a Brexit deal - and it all depends on Johnson.

Time is running out to agree and ratify a Brexit deal between the EU and the UK, yet it is far from certain whether this week will offer the long-awaited cathartic breakthrough or the feared catastrophic breakdown. It all hinges on a decision from the UK Prime Minister – but there are reasons to believe that he will take these negotiations to the edge, and maybe even beyond.

A deal negotiated and agreed?

With 95% of the legal text reportedly concluded, the shape of the overall deal has been in sight for some time now. However, to solve the remaining sticking points and secure this deal, Boris Johnson will have to accept robust level-playing-field and governance provisions, as well as find a compromise on fisheries (on which the EU will also have to move). Even at this late stage in the negotiations, we cannot say for certain whether the British Prime Minister will opt to make these compromises, or even whether he has made up his mind.

As crunch points come and go, Johnson’s indecisiveness prolongs the uncertainty for businesses, rendering preparations well-nigh impossible. His wavering also makes it increasingly more difficult to scrutinise and ratify any deal in time, thereby increasing the risk of sleepwalking into an accidental no-deal. Given the severe consequences of further delay, why is Johnson shying away from making a choice? Is he simply too distracted to make up his mind, or is his dithering and delaying tactical? At this point, it might be a dangerous mix of both, thus making a no-deal more likely, regardless of whether that is truly his intention or not.

Lack of bandwidth

Shortly after being tasked by voters with ‘getting Brexit done’, the UK government was forced to channel all of its energy into dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis. The acuteness of the crisis has left little bandwidth for Johnson to engage with the EU-UK negotiations, even though their economic implications will, in the long term, be felt more strongly than the temporary shock caused by the pandemic.

Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and other domestic crises has cast doubts about his competency and fitness for office. Combined with the lack of focus on Brexit, this poses serious questions about his grasp of the ‘this deal or no deal’ decision ahead of him. By leaving it as late as possible to engage with this question, Johnson adds obstacles to the ratification of a deal, demonstrating his deliberate disregard for the EU’s legal and democratic processes.

Political style

Not coming to a conclusion, prevaricating and hoping for a last-minute reprieve, as well as acting outside legal and political frameworks, might also be Johnson’s preferred style of negotiating and decision-making. With a political approach that seems to be based on experiences of backroom dealing within a small British political elite, the more legalistic and process-oriented style of EU negotiations might feel alien to Johnson. Furthermore, he might have dismissed this form of interaction as irrelevant for the final outcome, thus underestimating the need for a successful resolution within the ongoing negotiations.

Domestic opposition

While Johnson has the support of an 80-seat majority, some of his fiercest critics are his own Members of Parliament (MPs) who are increasingly agitated about the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions on the economy and individual freedoms. Given the evident overlap between lockdown critics and Brexit hardliners on the Conservative backbenches, Johnson might be reluctant to open another front on the trade-offs of an EU-UK deal, knowing full well that there is no deal that will satisfy all their demands.

Domestically, running down the clock appeals to Johnson in two ways. With a view to his MPs, it is a way of avoiding confrontation while contemplating how much taking them on would hurt him politically. With a view to eventually coming back to Parliament with a deal, he might calculate that by tactically going to the brink, with no possibility of another extension, he is creating a situation where it is either ‘this deal’ or no-deal. This would make it particularly difficult for Labour MPs to vote down a deal at the last minute unless they are comfortable with a no-deal outcome.


While the UK government’s decisions are often best understood in terms of their effect on the UK public, Johnson’s delaying tactics are also aimed at unsettling the EU, in the hopes of extracting some last-minute concessions. Therefore, part of the UK’s calculation might be to bring the final decision to the level of the European Council on 10 and 11 December. This would be based on the miscalculation that EU leaders, worn down by their internal struggles over the EU budget and the COVID-19 recovery fund, will show flexibility when faced with the additional economic loss of a no-deal Brexit and cut the UK a better deal at the last minute. This estimation ignores that EU leaders have been consistent in wanting to protect the EU’s long-term interests and are wary of giving too much ground to the UK.

A high-level intervention?

Another reason why Johnson might want to delay his decision is his natural inclination for backroom deals with other leaders – preferably Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron –, rather than negotiating with EU institutions. Linked to this is the idea that by pushing talks to the brink, the UK can force the EU capitals to intervene and overrule their negotiator Michel Barnier; the illusion that a deal has to be made by Paris and Berlin, and not by bureaucrats. When negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement, for example, the outstanding issue of the Irish border question was only resolved after a breakthrough meeting between Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

However, unlike then, most member states have their own vested interests in the ongoing negotiations now, making it more difficult for one EU leader to broker a deal on everyone’s behalf. And while some high-level input might indeed be needed, EU leaders will not budge on the main principle of the EU’s position: The necessity of protecting the integrity of the Single Market and the EU’s long-term interests. They are also unlikely to give up the leverage which comes from channelling the negotiations through the common ‘agent’ that is Barnier.

Sleepwalking into a no-deal

So, what will happen if Johnson continues to delay his decision to avoid facing his party while hoping (in vain) that his brinkmanship will deliver last-minute concessions from the EU? The Union is keeping negotiations open for as long as possible, not wanting to be seen as the party that walks away. However, this seemingly open-ended approach might be interpreted as weakness by the UK and keep alive the Brexiteer fantasy that the EU will cave at the 11th hour. It appears that there is little the EU can do to minimise the risk of an accidental no-deal.

Not only is there a real danger that the technical and legal processes to secure and ratify a deal will run out of time. More importantly, politicians in EU member states will run out of patience. Their loss of trust and feelings of exasperation towards the UK’s approach make it increasingly unlikely that member states will go out of their way to help the UK make a decision.

Additionally, the EU’s goodwill and trust could be pushed beyond the breaking point should the UK government follow through on its plans to reinstate the controversial clauses of the Internal Market Bill and to introduce the Finance Bill next week, likely containing further breaches of the Withdrawal Agreement. If the UK does go down this path, the EU’s resolve to keep talking might become much less politically desirable. While the latter might not officially admit as much, the negotiations could effectively be over.

In the end, most of the technical work on the deal has been done. If Johnson decides to back the deal and drop the law-breaking clauses, a breakthrough could come at any moment. However, for the reasons outlined above, it seems likely that he will delay his decision as much as he can, risking a no-deal by accident in the process. Perhaps deferring the decision and therefore any responsibility for his choices would suit Johnson just as well. The blame for a no-deal, whether by accident or by design, would then be conveniently laid at the EU’s door.

Jannike Wachowiak is a Policy Analyst in the Europe’s Political Economy programme. Fabian Zuleeg is Chief Executive of the EPC.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:

The latest from the EPC, right in your inbox
Sign up for our email newsletter
14-16 rue du Trône, 1000 Brussels, Belgium | Tel.: +32 (0)2 231 03 40
EU Transparency Register No. 
89632641000 47
Privacy PolicyUse of Cookies | Contact us | © 2019, European Policy Centre

edit afsluiten