Will Boris Johnson Really Deliver a Hard Brexit?

Markets are spooked, but a no-deal withdrawal might not be the likeliest option.

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Last week, Boris Johnson became UK prime minister. He appointed a cabinet full of hardline Brexiteers and asserted that Brexit would happen by October -- with a withdrawal deal or not -- but that he would only reopen negotiations with the EU if it agreed to certain preconditions. Subsequently, the pound plunged to a two-year low against the dollar. Patterns of online attention suggest the markets’ fear that Johnson will fail to deliver a withdrawal deal is well-placed -- but that online observers don’t necessarily think a hard Brexit is in the cards. 

First, internet browsing points to heightened concern about the UK economy. A signal that tracks scrutiny of UK businesses and other British microeconomic subjects has tended to spike at times when a smooth Brexit seemed unlikely. For instance, the signal last rose when former Prime Minister Theresa May announced she would give up on pushing her Brexit deal before resigning. After Johnson’s victory, the signal shot upward. 

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Meanwhile, other signals indicate expectations are low that Johnson will reach a new withdrawal deal with the European Union. Johnson said he would only meet with EU negotiators if they agreed to scrap the Irish border backstop, a provision to maintain a seamless border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that was included in May’s deal. Online attention to the issue of the border has surged at key moments in the Brexit negotiations. But interest in the border remained muted after Johnson’s ultimatum. That’s a sign that internet users are not taking seriously the prospect that the EU will agree to reopen negotiations and scrap the Irish backstop. 

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But does this mean that the online public thinks a no-deal Brexit is inevitable? Not necessarily. The day Johnson became prime minister, online interest in the next UK general election shot upwards. In fact, Boris Johnson’s assumption of the prime ministership triggered more interest in the next general election than Theresa May’s resignation. That counterintuitive result might be a sign that online observers believe the likeliest outcome is that Conservative MPs will trigger a general election rather than consent to Johnson leading the country out of the EU without a deal. 

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