Boris Johnson’s Peculiar Game of Chicken Is About To End

by Thomas R. Wells

Rumple Johnson negotiates

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has exactly one strategy in his EU trade negotiations: threatening to drive Britain into a no-deal wall unless he gets what he wants. In other words, Johnson has been approaching this extraordinarily important matter of national interest as a peculiar version of the game of chicken. This explains much of his bizarre behaviour over the last 18 months, such as his antagonistic attitude, stubbornness, time-wasting, and even (part of) his buffoonery. Nevertheless, to be explained is not to be justified. Not only will the strategy fail, as it did before when Johnson used it in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations. It has also foreclosed any hope for a substantive trade deal that could have fulfilled the positive aspirations of Brexiteers.

In a traditional game of chicken, two teenagers drive their cars directly towards each other at high speed, threatening mutually comprehensive destructive. The one who swerves away first is the loser, but still better off than if they had crashed. It is a game that rewards the most reckless player, and so it is no wonder that a famously irresponsible politician like Johnson would select it. He is willing to make huge bets with Britain’s national interest because he seems to see politics as just another game, and one that he gets to play with other people’s money rather than his own. The way Johnson decided to support the EU referendum back in 2016 illustrates this. He calculated that supporting Brexit gave him his best chance of winning the Prime Ministership – naturally the public interest was irrelevant to his considerations.  Not unrelated to Johnson’s disinterest in taking politics seriously, the other reason he relies so heavily on gambling as a method of government is that he is famously lazy and incompetent (in stark contrast to his Churchillian self-image). Thus, Johnson decided to play the trade negotiations as a game of chicken both because he knows that EU politicians and institutions do take the responsibility of politics seriously and will be unable to match his recklessness, and also because he knew that neither he nor the witless Brexit loyalists he has filled his government with would be capable of conducting a normal negotiation process.

Johnson’s chicken strategy explains why he and his government have been behaving in ways so starkly opposed to what one would expect of negotiators dealing with a huge number of very complex issues on a very tight deadline. In a game of chicken it is important to impress upon the other party that you are entirely willing to drive straight on even if you crash, and so convince them to swerve away and accept the loss. In this metaphor, the EU is supposed to quaver at Johnson’s resolute commitment to ‘A good deal or no deal!’ and calculate that – despite their enormously superior bargaining position – they should give him what he wants. Johnson has, for example, deliberately set out to destroy good will by treating Britain’s EU trading partners as antagonists and railing against them in the domestic press. He has made clearly implausible demands (and even outright impossible ones such as around the treatment of Northern Ireland) in the name of ‘sovereignty’ and refused to budge on them. He has procrastinated away nearly all the meager time allowed for negotiations, including deliberately throwing away opportunities for deadline extensions. He has often sounded foolish and incoherent in his public pronouncements, as if he didn’t really understand what was going on. And so on. All these bizarre behaviours can be understood as part of his cunning but fundamentally lazy plan to convince the EU that they are negotiating with someone crazy enough to actually believe that driving Britain into a no-deal crash would be an acceptable outcome.

And yet there is a huge flaw at the heart of Johnson’s chicken strategy. It is true that the EU would be a net loser from returning to WTO trading rules with the world’s fifth largest economy, and thus the mutually assured destruction of a no-deal outcome would be real for both parties. Yet it would by no measure be equal. Post-Brexit, the EU is still the 2nd biggest economy in the world, more than 5 times larger than Britain. Although losing Britain would noticeably shrink the EU’s single market, and hence the internal economies of scale that larger markets provide, the economic costs will be many times greater for Britain since its businesses will be trapped inside a market only 15% of its previous size.  This dramatic difference in fall-back position is the reason for Britain’s weak bargaining position in negotiating the terms of future trade access and presumably the reason why Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, also resorted to the chicken strategy when she recognised that conventional negotiation could never deliver what Brexiteers thought they had been promised. (Although her incompetence was convincing, her performance of jaunty recklessness was not: she was a tremendously serious politician, just really bad at it.)

The fact that the EU doesn’t especially need anything from Britain after Brexit is exactly why this is not a real game of chicken. For the EU’s politicians and institutions, many of Johnson’s demands are far more (politically) costly than the loss of access to British markets under no-deal. They therefore see no reason to swerve away, no matter how convincing Johnson’s performance of irresponsibility and incompetence. Thus, Johnson’s chicken strategy ultimately amounts to a threat only towards Britain’s welfare. ‘Look here’, Johnson is saying to the EU, ‘On behalf of the League of Brexiteers I have taken Britain hostage. Unless you give us what we want I am going to drive it into that wall at high speed. And then you’ll be sorry. There will be blood and refugees everywhere and you’ll have to deal with the mess. Wiff-waff’!’

There are surely limits to Johnson’s recklessness. After all, he pulled the exact same chicken stunt last year around the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and ended up caving in at the last moment (while loudly declaring victory). Yet thanks to the distortion field created by the new Brexit identity politics those limits have little directly to do with the national interest. Voters are far more interested in whose side you are on than the tedious political facts about what is actually in a Brexit treaty or the experts who claim to analyse them. Johnson has thus been emboldened to gamble not only with the British economy, but also with Northern Ireland’s fragile peace and the fraying Union with Scotland. By spinning his gambles as acts of patriotic resistance he has so far evaded  the normal political consequences of massive self-centered incompetence.

Nevertheless, the British will pay a real price for their politicians’ substitution of empty posturing for real efforts to govern, and eventually this will have political consequences (sometimes more quickly, as the Johnson government’s deadly mismanagement of Covid demonstrates). Johnson’s extended performance of a peculiarly one-sided game of chicken came at the cost of all that could have been achieved by engaging seriously in the negotiations. All that is left is a binary choice between an economically self-mutilating minimalist agreement barely above no deal at all, and a politically impossible maximalist agreement to roll-over nearly everything from EU membership. The neglected space in between was where a non-ideological approach to Brexit might have been constructed. That opportunity was squandered and with it the last hope for a Brexit that might in any way have been good for Britain.