At the moment, the government is adamant that it will not extend the transition period beyond December 31st. But it is worth remembering that Boris Johnson claimed he would “die in a ditch” rather than allow an extension of Britain’s EU membership beyond October 31st. That date came and went with barely a murmur and six weeks later Johnson won a landslide in the General Election. Anyone familiar with Johnson’s career knows that he is supremely comfortable with saying whatever he thinks will win him votes and popularity – so it is likely that any decision he makes around the transition period will be influenced by what he thinks the electorate wants.
On the face of it, the polls are clear. According to a recent YouGov poll, 67% of those with an opinion want the transition period extended in the light of the coronavirus crisis. But most of those in favour of extension were Remain voters, and the bulk of the Tory vote in 2019 came from the Leave side. Leavers themselves are split, with a slight majority (56%) in favour of not extending.
But if transition is not extended, then the overwhelming likelihood is that in December, Britain will exit into a “No Deal” situation. Johnson may be counting on the fact that this scenario was at one point popular with Leave voters, but this was mainly because May’s Withdrawal Agreement proved so spectacularly friendless. On the one hand, it horrified Remainers because it entailed a relatively Hard Brexit, but it was equally savaged from the other side, by Nigel Farage and the hardline European Research Group of Tory MPs (including inconsistently, Boris Johnson himself), who claimed that it was not “proper Brexit”. It was small wonder that the majority of Leave voters came to prefer a “No Deal” exit to May’s deal, particularly when Brexiteers consistently played down the economic risks entailed.
This changed dramatically once Johnson came back from Brussels with his own deal, which he claimed was much improved on May’s version. Just after the General Election, polls showed that the popularity of No Deal fell to 36%, with most Leavers now preferring the new Withdrawal Agreement. Johnson’s deal, and the commitment to “Get Brexit Done”, proved appealing to a public that had become weary of the country repeatedly staggering from crisis to crisis – and yet failing to extend the transition period will push Britain straight back into that cycle.
By December it is likely that the immediate health emergency will be over, but the economic calamity resulting from the continuing restrictions on normal life will be ongoing. Even with some government help, many businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors will not be able to continue trading. The scheme to support furloughed workers is costing up to £10 billion a month, and it is unclear how long the government can continue to afford this level of spending, with tax receipts plummeting at the same time. It is almost inevitable that unemployment will significantly increase. Against this background, deliberately creating more chaos and uncertainty for businesses and employees may well come across as self-indulgent and strongly against the national public interest.
With attention so firmly (and understandably) focused on the coronavirus crisis, it is hard to get a hearing about the dangers of failing to extend the transition period at the moment. But as the immediate emergency diminishes and the deadline at the end of June looms nearer, this is likely to change. Emphasizing that failing to extend will mean a return to the world of Brexit brinkmanship and enormous potential disruption, all at a time of unprecedented economic hardship, may well be enough to persuade even some hardened Brexit supporters that now is not the right time to risk No Deal.