‘No deal’ is still a real and present threat, not least to workers

By Phil Jones

September 2019


As of last night, things don’t appear to be going well for Boris Johnson. Not only did he lose a decisive vote, but also his already tenuous majority. He has also potentially lost the opportunity to call a snap election, with Labour planning to block any attempt until ‘no deal’ is taken off the table.


Yet, the danger of exiting the EU without a deal still looms, not least because the government has suggested they may ignore any legislation passed to block ‘no deal’. More pertinently, an election must now take place, even if not immediately, to break what is solidifying into an indissoluble deadlock, an election that it is far from clear whether Johnson would lose.


For these reasons, it is still worth taking ‘no deal’ as a real and present threat, not least to workers.


When we imagine ‘no deal’ we tend to conjure the apocalyptic: people dying from drug shortages, mutant meat products, and a country ground to a halt by fuel shortages. This ‘mad max-style Brexit’ is, regrettably, completely feasible, but the less spectacular aspects of ‘no deal’ are equally concerning.


Take UK worker’s rights, most of which are enshrined in EU law. Health and safety protections, legislation to prevent discrimination and harassment, paternity leave and provisions for annual leave and sick pay are all up for renegotiation if we leave the EU with ‘no deal’.


And it must be emphasised that ‘no deal’ is the pivot here because a deal would have to uphold these rights in some form. The European Parliament has reiterated that any future trade deal must maintain a “level playing field, in particular in relation to the United Kingdom’s continued adherence to the standards laid down by international obligations and the Union’s legislation and policies in the fields of fair and rules-based competition, including…social and workers’ rights”.


Although we cannot be sure of what a post-no-deal Brexit settlement would be, the record of Johnson’s cabinet on worker’s rights suggests that they would not adhere to much of the EU’s legislation. In a report for the Centre For Policy Studies, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab claimed that ‘cutting the cost of EU social regulations by 50% could result in a boost to economic output equivalent to the creation of 140,000 new jobs in the UK’. Repeating Raab’s sentiment, the once employment minister, and now home secretary, Priti Patel, has suggested that “If we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation we could deliver a £4.3bn boost to our economy and 60,000 new jobs.”


Let us pause for a second and consider what these ‘140,000’ new jobs might actually be like, given that they would emerge from the embers of a bonfire of worker’s rights. An employee could be left entirely open to racial, sexual or gender discrimination; they would be at risk of workplace hazards with no recourse to legal action; and there is a good chance that they would have severely reduced holiday or sick pay – or even none at all. It certainly would not be the future of work that we need or deserve.


It is perhaps unsurprising that Raab’s and Patel’s views on worker’s rights so seamlessly converge, considering that both contributed to Britannia Unchained, a right-wing libertarian manifesto drawn up by a number of Johnson’s cabinet members in 2012. Repeatedly deriding British workers as ‘among the worst idlers in the world’, the book might offer the clearest vision of what is in store for Britain following ‘no deal’. The authors’ vision, it appears, is a Britain that reproduces the astonishing growth of post-1960s Singapore, achieved by slashing work-based rights and regulations to the same standard as those of the Asian tiger economies.


For this reason, over the coming weeks, I will be digging into Britannia Unchained and a number of policy documents written by Johnson’s cabinet members, in the hope of clarifying to some degree the stakes of leaving the EU without a deal.



Phil is a PhD researcher at the University of Sussex focusing on cultural representations of the digital economy. Alongside his report on employability for Autonomy, he is currently writing a book about tasking and crowdwork.

Part One of Phil's blog on Self-branding can be found here