Britain won’t be ready to leave in October, says Travel Weekly’s Ian Taylor

Boris Johnson was confirmed as the leading candidate to replace Theresa May as Conservative leader and UK prime minister on Thursday following a first vote by Tory MPs.

This was hardly unexpected, although the extent of Tory MPs’ support for Boris (nobody refers to him as Johnson) probably was.

In 50-odd years of Tory leadership elections the favourite has seldom won – the winner usually turns out to be the candidate with the fewest enemies rather than most supporters. But this time appears to be different.

The voting suggests Boris will comfortably make the final run-off of two candidates in a poll of Tory party members next month. And a vote of Tory activists is a vote he can’t lose.

Conservative Party members are 75%-80% for Brexit and mostly for no deal in preference to delay, so Boris and his rivals must declare their determination to ensure Britain leaves the EU on October 31 until at least the moment of coronation.

In the circumstances it was interesting to note Boris’s care, in a speech on Wednesday, to suggest a no-deal Brexit would be a “last resort”.

Britain could not “go on kicking the can down the road”, he said in a reference to a children’s street game, but then added: “I am not aiming for a no-deal outcome.”

The business newspaper the Financial Times noted: “While he [Johnson] insisted Britain ‘must’ leave the EU by October 31, this appeared to stop short of a guarantee it would.”

 

‘Minimum capability’

This would be just as well because on the day Johnson spoke a leaked Cabinet note from late last month betrayed the obvious truth that the UK would not be ready for Brexit on October 31.

Rather, the government would need six to eight months just to stockpile enough medicines and four to five months to prepare new border checks.

In addition, most of the government’s “core no-deal preparations” provide “only a minimum viable level of capability”. Ouch!

On the same day, Chancellor Philip Hammond – who is a Remainer but has not so far broken ranks to vote against the government on Brexit – told a Bloomberg business audience: “It will be impossible to do this by October 31 and I don’t think it will be in our national interest to drive towards this cliff edge.”

Hammond may soon be out of the Cabinet, of course – or maybe not, depending on how Boris chooses to unify his fractured party.

Also on Wednesday a Labour Party attempt to prevent a future prime minister suspending (proroguing) Parliament to force through a no-deal exit was defeated by 309 votes to 298 – just five ‘swing’ votes short of tying the hands of the next prime minister.

At least one of the remaining Tory candidates for leader, Dominic Raab, has cheerfully suggested suspending Parliament. But this would risk an almighty crisis not just among MPs but on the streets, with polls suggesting UK electors oppose such a move by a two-to-one majority.

Labour’s move failed primarily because of its timing. The Brexit deadline is months away and the vast majority of Tory MPs remain loyal to the leaderless government while they select a new PM.

Only 10 Tories voted with Labour and eight Labour MPs representing overwhelmingly ‘Leave’ constituencies voted with the government.

This does not change the underlying Parliamentary arithmetic and won’t be the end of the matter. There remains no majority in Parliament for a no-deal Brexit and more Tory MPs, such as Hammond, could be expected to oppose no deal when it comes to a crunch.

‘Glad to be on even keel’

Endless talk of the October deadline and of ‘no deal’ won’t resolve the continuing uncertainty or the pressure on the weakened pound, of course.

That is likely to continue to depress business and consumer confidence and dampen demand for outbound holidays.

One senior industry source told Travel Weekly this week: “Brexit really did have an effect. We all thought we would see a Brexit bounce [once the leave date was postponed] and we’ve not seen it.”

The same source noted of current trading: “There was such a downturn at the start of the year that most people are glad just to be on an even keel.”

However, a Deloitte consumer report this week noted UK leisure-spending intentions remain surprisingly stable.

In fact, Deloitte found a year-on-year rise of one percentage point in reported spending on short-breaks and holidays in the first quarter of this year, and a four-point rise in intended spending on short breaks in the second quarter along with a further one-point rise in anticipated holiday spending.

Booking numbers for the summer appear broadly on a par with last year despite everything. While the outbound market remains tough, margins squeezed and discounts widely available, trading has not plunged.

Indeed, a second senior source noted the past few weeks had seen the market “turn the corner a little against weak trading last year”.

This source suggested: “It’s not about making money this year, it’s about holding on and hoping Brexit gets sorted out sooner rather than later. People are not looking beyond October 31.”

Holding on sounds sensible. Not looking beyond October 31 may be less so.

Johnson’s pledge to renegotiate Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU and leave at the end of October may play to the Conservatives who elect him, but not only does the EU continue to rule it out but few beyond the Tory party believe him.

A YouGov poll of almost 4,000 UK adults on June 6 found 19% thought a renegotiation “possible”, and just 6% “definitely possible”, against 61% who believe it “not possible”.

At the same time, Labour peer and former transport secretary Lord Adonis assured the Institute of Travel and Tourism (ITT) conference in Croatia that Brexit “won’t happen”.

Adonis pointed out: “The new prime minister will proclaim a new agreement, but when the vote [in Parliament] happens it will be voted down again.”

He told UK industry leaders: “You can all have confidence in your businesses going forward.”

That is overly optimistic, but Adonis is right about the impasse the new prime minister will face. Caution, rather than confidence, should be the watchword.

More: ITT 2019: ‘Brexit won’t happen’ says Labour peer Lord Adonis

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