MPs must reject this terrible agreement and then take Johnson down in the election that followsby Jonathan Lis / October 17, 2019 / Leave a comment
And so, when push came to shove, Boris Johnson did after all throw the Democratic Unionists under the bus. Perhaps he thought they were expendable. Perhaps he cared more about Brexit than preserving a full economic union. Perhaps he just didn’t care about the DUP to begin with.
Let us be clear. The deal presented this morning is much worse for the DUP than Theresa May’s ever was. May’s agreement kept the whole UK tied to the customs union indefinitely and placed just Northern Ireland in the single market for goods. For that reason alone the DUP rejected it three times. This deal preserves the divergence for the single market (necessitating regulatory checks on goods leaving Great Britain) but adds divergence on tariffs too. While the new framework cleverly keeps Northern Ireland effectively in two regimes—so Northern Irish goods can benefit from the UK’s trade deals when being exported—it will have to apply EU tariffs on goods being imported, unless it can be proven those goods will never leave the UK. The real risk here is that a de facto economically united Ireland will eventually precipitate a psychologically united one as well.
The issue of consent is also key. Whereas the backstop was intended to be temporary (even though the promised “alternative arrangements” for the border were never likely to emerge in the short or long term), this arrangement has the potential to become permanent. The wording of the text ensures that the Stormont Assembly has to vote to stop arrangements, not to allow them. In the end it may not matter whether such votes use a simple majority (requiring a new vote every four years) or a weighted cross-community majority (requiring a new vote every eight years). If Sinn Féin senses that the Assembly might vote to terminate the arrangement, thus risking a hard border, it might simply choose to pull out of the Assembly and thus disband it. Ironically enough, the DUP might have been better off with the promise of alternative arrangements after all.
As things stand, the DUP cannot support this deal. Indeed, they must be apoplectic that Johnson approved it without their consent and is now attempting to bounce them into accepting it. The Union is more important to them than Brexit. It is more important to them than financial inducements. It is infinitely more important to them than not embarrassing the prime minister.
But the fact is this deal is worse for everyone. By the government’s own figures, the Canada-style deal now promised in the political declaration will leave us at least 4.9 per cent poorer than we would otherwise have been.
The other key fact is the shock to industry. Although May always denied it, her deal effectively ensured a customs union. That would have preserved the supply chains so vital to such key industries as car manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and food production. The new deal will take us out of both the customs union and single market. It doesn’t matter if we have a zero-tariff, zero-quota trade deal. With new rules-of-origin requirements on goods coming from countries beyond the UK and EU, and without the harmonisation of the single market, Britain’s ports could become almost as congested with this deal as with no-deal. Not only that, but businesses dependent on supply chains could fold altogether.
Ironically, the one benefit business has won from this deal is the thing Tory hardliners will hate the most: commitments to a level playing field on regulations. Johnson had vowed to ditch May’s intention to align business to the EU’s regulations, in favour of a much looser trade deal. That was music to the ears of the proponents of “Singapore upon Thames.” But the EU insisted that it was not going to be undercut by unfair competition. If we want a trade deal, we will have to play by the same rules—and that means playing by rules we no longer shape or vote on. Even Tories who can accept the Northern Ireland protocol may balk at that.
Conversely, Labour MPs may object for a different reason—namely, that the level playing commitments, which ensure the same protections for workers, consumers and the environment, are only included in the political declaration, which is the non-binding part of the agreement. There will be nothing to prevent this Tory government from junking the ambitions as soon as future negotiations have begun. In other words, then, Tory hardliners may reject the deal because they believe the level playing field will happen; Labour Leavers may reject it because they believe it won’t.
For now, everything moves to Saturday. Assuming there is a final legal text and parliament agrees to vote on it, despite such limited time for scrutiny, there are three options. They can accept it outright; accept it subject to a confirmatory vote or extension request; or reject it.
If MPs accept it outright, we could be on the path to no deal by default. Under the terms of the Benn Act, Johnson will have no obligation to seek an extension. A new bill will be presented and parliament will have to approve every single word of it or face no deal. Remainers and moderates could seek to amend it but that risks timing it out altogether. Worse, no deal enthusiasts could flood it with amendments in the hope that it does time out. Parliament could seek to force a new extension again, but there simply may not be time.
MPs could instead accept it subject to a confirmatory vote. That would not compel Johnson to seek an extension, so parliament would once again face a battle to force that delay. Johnson in any case would attempt to thwart that referendum with every power at his disposal. A general election might have to come first.
A third option is to approve the deal subject simply to an extension request. That might be easier, but still fundamentally resolves nothing, as parliament would be accepting a bad deal on principle. All this does is prevent the catastrophe of a 31st October crash out.
The final option is to reject the deal. If the DUP and Labour Leavers stand firm, this is still highly possible or even likely. Such an outcome activates the Benn Act, forcing Johnson to request a delay, and at that point Labour would almost certainly allow an election—either by a vote of confidence or through a request from Johnson himself.
We then find ourselves in a general election. In that campaign Johnson would find himself not advocating for no deal or a glorious utopian deal but the imperfect compromise he has just negotiated. That will cost him precious support among Leavers and Remainers. Most ominously, Nigel Farage has already indicated that this deal “is not Brexit.” If he takes the fight to the PM, any chance of a Tory majority disappears immediately. It is Jeremy Corbyn who can present voters with the contrast of a bad Tory deal or a Labour referendum to discard it.
But before then, we must simply take a step back and realise the broader truth. This deal is worse than May’s. It will leave us poorer, sacrifice jobs, cause major disruption, disenfranchise our politicians from key decisions, and jeopardise the fragile equilibrium which has ensured stability in Northern Ireland for two decades. But there is a still more essential truth: any deal will leave us poorer, weaker and more isolated. We will never enjoy a better arrangement than the one we currently have. That is the one we must vote for. That is the one we must keep.