The prime minister tries to sound conciliatory. But his Brexit plan is designed for UK hardliners and no one elseby Jonathan Lis / October 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
If Brexit didn’t threaten to drive the economy into a wall, plunge the lives of millions of people into immediate chaos and endanger the peace process in Northern Ireland, you would have to laugh at it. Here is a true masterpiece of its absurdist genre: the more things change, the more everything stays the same.
Boris Johnson has trodden a familiar path in the last two days. Indeed it is so familiar that it more or less exactly follows the script his predecessor obeyed a year ago. That is: appear triumphant at Conservative Party conference, present proposals to the EU, have the EU dismiss them for being wholly unworkable, then suffer inevitable defeat first in Brussels and then in Westminster. Theresa May lasted an improbable eight months after her humiliation. A gambler might give Johnson rather less time.
The deal may have changed from the old backstop, but only to make it even less palatable to the EU. Under May’s plan, the whole UK would remain in the customs union for an indefinite period and Northern Ireland would remain in the single market for goods in perpetuity. That was unacceptable to the DUP because it created a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, and unacceptable to the Tory Brexiters because it outsourced the UK’s tariff rates to Brussels while removing the ability to shape them. Conversely, it was acceptable to Dublin and Brussels because it guaranteed the continuity of the customs arrangements until they consented to a legally operable replacement.
Johnson’s plan imposes that entirely untested alternative not for some unspecified date in the future, but the end of next year—a mere 15 months away. If it is not ready by then, tough. Ireland will have customs infrastructure whether it likes it or not. The plan also ditches any concept of indefinite arrangements for the single market regulations. Not only can the DUP effectively veto new single market arrangements agreed by 27 other countries representing 440m people—not one of them represented by the DUP—but after four years the DUP can ditch Northern Ireland’s single market alignment altogether. Put simply, the proposal lets a hardline faction of unionists arbitrarily re-impose, if it chooses, a fully hard border on the island of Ireland.
If the UK government thinks anyone in Brussels or Dublin will agree to that, they have another think coming. Indeed, the Irish government has today categorically dismissed the plan in its current form. The only compromise which will prove acceptable is a Northern Ireland-only backstop which keeps the island of Ireland in one territory not just for regulations but customs—and which cannot be unilaterally disbanded by Arlene Foster or whoever succeeds her as leader of the DUP. That is not a matter of Irish intransigence, but to preserve the all-Ireland economy to which the UK committed in the joint agreement of December 2017, and the all-Ireland peace to which the UK committed in the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998.
Needless to say, the politicking has begun in earnest. Brexiters have been falling over themselves to broadcast how pleased they are with the proposals, and number-crunchers have provided credible paths to Commons majorities. It is the same delusory game that has been playing out for the last three years. Of course parliament will vote for something if you give enough MPs what they want. The whole point of this fiasco is that it is not what the EU wants, and an agreement requires more than one party to agree to it.
Johnson thinks he has played his hand cleverly. His appearance in the Commons today was his most sober, respectful and conciliatory since he came to office. He did not raise his voice. He did not jab his finger or make gratuitous insults. He appeared to take the proceedings seriously. It was a breath of fresh air for the prime minister to act for once as though he was in the national parliament in 2019 and not in the chamber of the Oxford Union in 1985. And yet the politeness, welcome though it is, alters nothing. Johnson knows that he is not going to get this deal past the EU. He knows that no deal will be ready for parliament to vote on by 19th October. And he knows that he will not be able to break the law requiring him to seek an extension if MPs have not approved a deal, or no deal, by that date. He has laid a trap for the EU in order to blame them for his own deceit, but they will not be foolish enough to walk into it.
In the Commons today Johnson declared, with almost no evidence, that he had been “flexible,” and threatened the EU with no deal if they failed to show similar flexibility. The fact remains that Northern Irish peace and lives are not comparable to the freedom to sign a trade deal with New Zealand. His government used to promise that there would be no borders between Ireland and Northern Ireland or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain; now it has abandoned both pledges in one. The PM has not visited the Northern Irish border or shown any great concern for the people who live there. He dismisses the fact its people voted to Remain. And as foreign secretary he compared a frontier which caused the deaths of more than 3,000 people to the boundary of two London boroughs. It is difficult to reach anything but the simplest of conclusions: Northern Ireland and its people are an inconvenience. He does not care enough to change approach.
The delusion in the Commons today was the same that we have seen for the last three years. Conservative MPs hear what they want to hear, ignore the EU’s objections and leverage, and assert we will get what we want because we have “compromised.” Anna Soubry hit the nail on the head when she declared that Johnson had reached a deal not with the EU but the ERG.
The piece I am writing today could have been written ten months ago, because the fundamental elements have not moved. If a deal is acceptable to the EU, it is unacceptable to the UK parliament. If you then make a deal acceptable to the UK parliament, you make it unacceptable to the EU. At its heart, Brexit cannot be delivered in any viable form because it depends on ignoring the interests of the people who have to agree to it.
The truth is this. The PM is offering the EU next to nothing, talks only to a domestic audience, and implicitly threatens to break the law to dictate what he wants. He can be as calm as he likes, but when it comes to it, all we need is the mantra of his predecessor: nothing has changed. Like her, he will fail.