Boris Johnson’s Bun Fight Is a Real Turn Off

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sailed through his party conference in Liverpool last week. Whatever his party's divisions, and there are plenty, there is no serious challenge to Corbyn's leadership.

By contrast, it's hard to see the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham this week as anything other than a beauty parade of would-be party leaders all seeking to one-up each other. If they are not careful, one of Britain's most successful election-winning machines will leave voters not merely bewildered but seriously turned off.

Prime Minister Theresa May is hoping to survive the week with enough support to make it to the next Brexit deadline: the mid-October European Union summit. The EU has given May until that summit to come up with a way to guarantee that Brexit won't bring a return to a physical border between EU-member Ireland and the U.K.'s Northern Ireland – the so-called Irish backstop that she committed to last December in order to complete the divorce agreement and advance talks on the future U.K.-EU trading relationship. Failing that, the prospect of Britain leaving the EU with no deal in place is much higher.

May has been hanging to her job by two threads. The first is the lack of a clear alternative leader that her divided party can rally behind; the second is the lack of an alternative Brexit plan that would meet with both EU and parliamentary approval. On the eve of the conference, Boris Johnson – a Conservative politician of such renown that he's generally referred to simply as Boris – effectively made a bid to snap both threads.

Johnson resigned in dramatic fashion as foreign secretary this summer in protest of May's Chequers proposals for the future U.K.-EU trading relationship. He is the closest thing Conservatives have to a rock-star politician. His columns in the Brexit-supporting Daily Telegraph routinely get reported on the paper's front pages as news. He is also the bookmakers' favorite to succeed May.

In a 4,500-word article last week, he set out his alternative to May's Brexit proposals, followed by an interview  Friday in which he refused to rule out a challenge to the prime minister for the party leadership. On Sunday, he stepped up his attack, making it personal: “Unlike the prime minister, I campaigned for Brexit,” Johnson told the Sunday Times.

His proposal, which he calls Super Canada, is based on a wide-ranging free-trade agreement between Canada and the EU which came into force in September 2017, only in Johnson's version it would be supercharged to include additional areas for the U.K.-EU relationship. It has instant appeal to hardline Conservatives who want a clean break with the EU. And yet, advocates are coy about the costs.

Super Canada's zero tariffs and quotas on all imports and exports is the easy part. The EU-Canada trade deal eliminates all tariffs on industrial and fisheries products – some after a seven-year transition. But some agricultural products such as poultry and eggs were not covered by that agreement and others are only left duty-free for a limited time. Some fruits and vegetables face tariffs of up to 20 percent.

Brexiters have criticized May's Chequers plan for not including services, which comprise the bulk of the U.K. economy and where Britain has a trade surplus with Europe. But while the EU-Canada trade deal has some services components (postal services, for example), it has hundreds of pages of carve-outs. It's not clear how the U.K. will do much better. Nor would it help with financial services, since it requires Canadian financial services firms to have a presence in the EU and comply with EU regulations.

Johnson's proposals for Mutual Recognition Agreements to cover regulations now and in the future would require an unprecedented act of generosity from the EU, which would fear that other member countries would begin to demand the same. And most independent studies concluded that a Canada-style agreement will cost the U.K. economy much more in terms of growth than May's plans or the Labour preference for remaining in the customs union altogether. 

The EU has acknowledged that a free-trade agreement along EU-Canada lines is possible, though it would still require an up-front solution for the Irish border for a divorce deal to be done. Johnson may be right to call for Britain to “go with the grain of modern technology” to resolve customs issues, but those technologies are not yet ready to be rolled out, or they would be part of current proposals.

More problematic than the “what” is the “how.” Johnson wants the government to renege on its commitment for an Irish backstop and insist it should be negotiated as part of the future trade deal, which would give more time for the technical fixes to be worked out. How May can do this now and have any negotiating credibility is unclear. The EU might just walk away from the table if she tried. 

That prospect doesn't worry Johnson too much, who says Britons should show that “we are not just psychologically reconciled but indeed energized by the prospect of leaving.” But no deal is precisely what parliament will seek to avoid. So the alternative to Johnson's alternative is also not viable.

There may be a time when the only option available is a mere free-trade agreement. But the Tories shouldn’t allow themselves to be further distracted by all of this. May can take heart from a poll published by Politico on Sunday that showed that 64 percent of Conservative voters say they want their MPs to support her final deal.

The Labour conference may have fudged the question of how to solve Brexit, but it didn't shy away from addressing the causes of Brexit. Corbyn's solution entails the highest levels of taxation and state spending Britain has seen in almost a half-century and will be worrisome to business. But the Tories would be making a big mistake if they spend more energy fighting each other than communicating a coherent governing vision. Voters will conclude they don't have one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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