Richard North, 25/11/2019  

"Our deal is the only one on the table", says the Conservative Party Manifesto. "It is signed, sealed and ready", it continues, and it "puts the whole country on a path to a new free trade agreement with the EU".

As to this fabulous agreement, it will be "a new relationship based on free trade and friendly cooperation, not on the EU's treaties or EU law". Furthermore, "there will be no political alignment with the EU". It will "keep the UK out of the single market, out of any form of customs union, and end the role of the European Court of Justice".

Just so that there is no misunderstanding, the Manifesto goes on to list the attributes of this future relationship. It will, we are told, allow us to take back control of our laws and our money and control our own trade policy. We are also to have an Australian-style points-based immigration system.

A new Conservative government would also raise standards in areas like workers' rights, animal welfare, agriculture and the environment. And it would ensure we are in full control of our fishing waters.

But then comes the key part. "We will negotiate a trade agreement next year", the Manifesto says, "one that will strengthen our Union". Crucially, it then tells us, in bold, "we will not extend the implementation period beyond December 2020".

Nevertheless, there are those who suggest that Johnson is only saying this in order to get elected. Come the crunch point in June next year, they believe, he will roll over and extend what he insists on calling the "implementation" period. They do not believe that the new government will drive us over the edge and end the transition period without a deal.

Yet any such belief is an article of faith – conjecture with no supporting evidence. Johnson has made refusing an extension a core manifesto commitment. It is not an incidental policy but a crucial part of his government's strategy. Only if it can "Get Brexit Done" can it "Unleash Britain's Potential".

This is what the manifesto says: "Our priority as Conservatives is to get Brexit done – so that we can unleash the potential of this great country. So that we can push past the obstacles that other parties have put in our country's way. So that we can deliver on the people’s decision in 2016 and use our new post-Brexit freedoms to transform the UK for the better by focusing on your priorities".

The thing is that there are no "new post-Brexit freedoms" that come to us on 31 January, the date Brexit is supposed to be "done". We move immediately to the transition period where we are still bound by the full range of the EU treaties, the only difference being that we no longer have any representation in the Commission, the Council or the European Parliament.

This was one of the objections to Johnson's deal and May's (very similar) deal before it, one (but only one) of the reasons why it was dismissed by the likes of Farage as BRINO, Brexit in name only.

Farage, however, now seems to have suppressed his reservations and has praised "a Tory manifesto he can finally approve of", not least because it promises not to extend the transition period beyond December 2020.

No doubt, Farage will expend what is left of his fading political influence in holding Johnson's feet to the fire – ensuring that he keeps to his manifesto commitments. And Johnson will also most certainly have to deal with wails of the media and the opposition (with Labour perhaps under new management) if he deviates from the promised path – where the "liar" meme will be given fresh impetus.

And while the same limited bunch of "experts" are being dutifully consulted by the legacy media, belatedly telling us that a trade deal is very complicated and cannot be agreed in the eleven months.

The thing is, though, that we know that a trade deal is possible by the end of December 2020, as long as Johnson elects for a "quick and dirty" agreement. And there is nothing in the Manifesto which precludes him taking that line. The word "comprehensive" attached to the trade agreement does not appear anywhere.

Much, of course, will depend on the size of the new government's majority (if, indeed the Tories gain an overall majority), but a tenable scenario could extend to an over-confident Johnson convinced that a de minimus agreement with the EU can suffice, with other trade deals compensating for any losses incurred.

Here, we have an interesting conundrum as the Manifesto pledges that the new government will aim to have 80 percent of UK trade covered by free trade agreements within the next three years, starting with the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. These deals are supposed to be negotiated in parallel with the EU deal.

The pesky experts again rear their ugly heads, stating that it is rarely possible to make agreements in parallel. The nature of our EU arrangements will determine what can be gained from other countries, suggesting that UK negotiators will have to tackle each potential trade partner in turn – effectively slowing down the whole process.

This, though, would assume that the UK maintains its current "Europe first" policy which has prevailed since we first joined the EEC. But the very fact that a deal with the US, for instance, could only be concluded once Brussels had been squared, might actually incentivise Johnson to get the EU out of the way as quickly as possible, regardless of short-term problems.

We see hints of this in the Manifesto, which complains that, as part of the EU, we were forced into accepting trade deals that put their priorities first. Now, it says, we will be able to tailor our trade deals to the needs of British firms and the British economy.

In addition to the US, therefore, the new government commits to forging stronger links with the Commonwealth, "which boasts some of the world’s most dynamic economies such as India, with which we already share deep historical and cultural connections".

What we could be looking at, therefore, is a major sea-change in trade policy, breaking away from Euro-centric deals in favour of the Anglosphere and the Commonwealth. And as long as Johnson sees no great harm in weathering a few years of lean times while he settles his new trade policy, there is every reason why he should aim for concluding negotiations with the EU by the end of December 2020.

A great mistake, in this context, would be to assume that Johnson would act rationally, or that he is well advised by people who have a sound grip of the issues. In terms of trade policy, there are a number of dangerous ideologues around Johnson, and a strong pro-US bent.

The group members, with Johnson at the helm, could easily convince themselves that their version of an Anglospheric/Commonwealth policy holds such promise that they can afford to take what would otherwise be seen as the reckless gamble of ditching EU preference.

Yet nothing of this is being rehearsed in the open – and no-one is listening anyway. Johnson continues with his misdirection strategy, pretending that to "Get Brexit Done" opens the way to magnificent riches and solves almost all our domestic crises.

With "train-wreck" Corbyn blathering at the margins, looking less credible by the day, a new Conservative government is effectively being given a free pass to rewrite our trade policy, with profound long-term consequences and at huge risk.

For all that, nothing of this may come to pass. Johnson could be overcome with a sudden bout of caution in June and opt for the full extension, taking us to December 2022. But it would be unwise to bank on this. Just for once, this congenital liar could mean what he says.

At the end of next year, there is a distinct possibility that we end the transition period with a "quick and dirty" agreement, taking us on the road to perdition. As long as he has a big enough majority, Johnson could be sufficiently emboldened to take the gamble, on the one occasion when we actually hoped he was lying.

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