“Dear Vote Leave activists: don’t worry about the so-called ‘permanent’ commitments this historically abysmal Cabinet are trying to make on our behalf. They are not ‘permanent’ and a serious government – one not cowed by officials and their bullshit ‘legal advice’ with which they have herded ministers like sheep – will dispense with these commitments.”
Our Prime Minister has a record of stupid and unscrupulous decisions. Just think back on his previous 12 u-turns. Or of the people he has appointed: Cummings, a ‘career psychopath’ (in David Cameron’s words), or Brandon Lewis, gratuitously replacing Julian Smith, a competent, experienced, principled and widely respected Northern Ireland secretary, with somebody who is in every respect the opposite. If you doubt that, watch his performance before the Northern Ireland Committee.
Yet nothing has prepared us for the Internal Market Bill. As Brandon Lewis admitted in parliament, this breaks international law. It is a flagrant breach of faith, letting down our negotiating partners who happen to be all 27 of our nearest neighbours and, up to now, friends. The gutter press would have you believe that ‘Brussels’ is now frightened because Britain is prepared to make a stand. On the contrary, the EU27 are astonished at and contemptuous of a government which could do this, and will not quickly forget it. And yet the bill survived its second reading by over 70 votes.
Brandon Lewis’s phrase “in a limited and specific way”, will join the lexicon of Tory infamy, along with Robert Armstrong’s “economical with the truth”, or Mandy Rice Davies’ “well he would, wouldn’t he”. But this is no laughing matter.
If this Prime Minister were capable of serious reflection, he would have lain awake contemplating the pros and cons of the Bill. Sometimes, as in June 2016, such reflection is a bit like thinking through the pros and cons of taking cyanide. So it is now.
So what, from the Johnson – Cummings perspective, are the pros and cons of the Bill?
Clearly it will be a sop to the extreme Tory Europhobes like Steve Baker. They now say openly that they voted for the Withdrawal Agreement because they were promised that it would not be honoured. However, their usual form is, when thrown red meat, to demand yet more. Now they want simply to scrap the Withdrawal Agreement completely. After all, we have now left the EU, and the Tories have won the election, so the Withdrawal Agreement has served its purpose. Indeed it is easy to see this move as a means of provoking the EU27 to walk away, so achieving the prize of a No-Deal, Australia-style, WTO Brexit, and being able to blame the other side.
The Daily Express will be happy. It can now run headlines about Churchillian bulldog spirit, and gallant Little Britain standing up to those bullies in Brussels who are acting in bad faith. In reality the EU 27 position has not changed since 2016. The EU27 are doing what they said they would do, which is not to let the UK have its cake and eat it. They have negotiated in an adult way, in the vain hope that the UK government would do the same. It is the Europhobes who got it wrong, by claiming the EU would back down. Have they apologised?
The PM can claim that the Bill is only a contingency plan, only needed if a Free Trade Agreement does not happen. No. The WA is separate from trading negotiations and is binding regardless of their outcome. Ironically, the Bill makes an FTA less likely.
Boris Johnson hopes that somehow he can drive a wedge between his EU interlocutors. Hence the story in the Telegraph that panicking national governments are threatening to sideline Michel Barnier. This is not how the EU works. The EU knows that the biggest victim by far of Brexit is the UK. German industry is not pushing Merkel to make concessions. Quite the reverse, the single market is vital and of course, with the weakened pound, the UK is not as attractive a place to sell to. Indeed, nothing could unite the EU 27 as effectively as the abhorrence created by Johnson’s behaviour.
This is an opportunity to put the pesky Irish in their place. Maybe Johnson is trying to take advantage of Ireland’s supposed weakness following the departure of Varadkar and Hogan. He has a lot to learn. Ireland is not negotiating on its own, and there is huge moral capital invested by the EU 27 in protecting what has been achieved so far.
The decision will please the DUP. They foolishly believed his promises through 2019 that he would never allow customs checks in the Irish Sea, just before he solemnly promised the Europeans that he would do precisely that. But, while the DUP prior to the election were the Tory government’s Useful Idiots, now they are no longer useful.
Perhaps in the parallel universe of Johnson and Cummings, this whole affair is another dead cat, distracting from their performance in managing the economy and the pandemic, in siphoning off public funds to Tory supporters, and in selling the UK economy and the NHS to Donald Trump. This is an insult to the intelligence of the voting public.
Openly breaking international law turns the country into a pariah and makes it impossible to speak out plausibly on lawbreaking both at home and abroad. All 5 living former Prime Ministers have spoken out passionately against it. So have even Brexit supporters Michael Howard, Norman Lamont and Geoffrey Cox.
The decision undermines negotiations on an EU trade deal, already in a parlous state with the clock ticking. Time will run out in a month. And a last minute deal is a fantasy. Boris Johnson’s belief that this is a good way to do business is shown up by one of his own excuses for repudiating the Withdrawal Agreement, namely that it was signed in haste. If this is true, then he should have learned a lesson and not left it to the last minute this time around.
Other countries will be looking at what is going on here. Johnson and Cummings have a touching faith in third countries to sign trade deals with them. They talk as if Brexit had not already destroyed this country’s negotiating position. Good negotiators know how strong or otherwise their position is. The much vaunted trade agreement with Japan remains to be ratified, and no doubt the canny Japanese, already stung by what Brexit has done to their car industry, are thinking hard about whether they still trust this government as a trading partner.
As for US trade deal, of which Johnson is so proud, he may have dealt it a fatal blow. Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker, has made it clear that any undermining of the Good Friday Agreement will lead to Congress blocking a deal, and it can, whoever wins the November election.
Voters have a right to feel cheated. They elected the Tories by a large majority, one of the most important selling points being the Withdrawal Agreement, allegedly an “oven ready deal”. How can the Prime Minister now, so soon afterwards, repudiate it is as threatening peace in Northern Ireland,? He knows that its express intention was to do the opposite? This, as in 2016, throws into doubt the legitimacy of the electoral decision.
Peace in Northern Ireland is at risk. In signing the Northern Ireland protocol Boris Johnson was acknowledging that keeping an open border in Ireland entailed customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He now implies his hand was forced and that he did not understand what he was signing. If this were the case it would be a resigning matter. However, we now know that he was warned of the implications. Quite simply, if the Northern Ireland protocol is not applied there will be a border in Ireland, with all that this implies for the peace process.
That the bill can and will be challenged in the European Court of Justice is a given. The government may pretend to be indifferent to this, as it wants to leave the ECJ’s jurisdiction anyway. However, it will also be subject to judicial challenge within the UK, leading to a major constitutional crisis with uncertain outcome..
The Bill is actually a sign of weakness. Boris Johnson admits that this Withdrawal Agreement is flawed. It is perhaps the least worst of all the options, so if it does not work, a “Good Brexit” is impossible.
Finally, Johnson has managed to split his party, and even though so far he has achieved the numbers, with the usual threats and bribes, to get his legislation through the Commons, doing so will cost him and his party dearly. And, even after that, he has the Lords to contend with.
We may well ask whether Johnson can survive this. If he does not, his departure may prove to be his first ever substantial service to his country.
Peter Burke is Chair of Oxford for Europe.
Here’s a link to their next virtual meeting: https://oxfordforeurope.org/ofe-virtual-meeting-28-september-2020/