Thursday 3 October 2019

Boris Johnson's "New" Brexit Plan

Were it not for the fact Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative Party, he needn't have bothered with his speech at his party's conference. It was certainly the most vacuous pitch any leader has made on the eve of a much-expected election, ever. Policy announcements? There were none. But we heard about a battery factory and the way Johnson's mum voted in the EU referendum, so that's okay. Also missing was virtually any detail about the government's new positioning on Brexit. Yes, we know Johnson can be economical with the actualité, and facts have a tendency to breeze through his brain like recollections of hands a-wandering under the dining table, but come on. He stood there under a slogan of "Get Brexit Done" and it almost entirely passed him by. Good job our fearless press and broadcast media were on hand to take him to task.

What then are Johnson's new proposals about? Well, for a moment let's suspend the politics surrounding it and assume his is a serious and genuine attempt for arriving at deal, and could plausibly persuade the EU27 and enough parliamentarians to give it a tick. Folks who've followed the finer points of toing and froing under Theresa May will recall her approach involved treating Northern Ireland and the UK mainland differently. Goods and people would, theoretically, continue to flow between north and south unimpeded, and the rest of the UK could and would diverge if it decides to go its own way while the north remains within the EU's economic orbit. This, and our coughing up £39bn (not all at once, it has to be added) to cover the UK's liabilities and obligations to the EU were enough to get rebellious Tories, not least the hedge fund elite of the European Research Group, all in a lather. Why was this a bad deal? Part of what May advocated were greater restrictions on state aid than what the EU currently allows, the regulatory divergence was a recipe for driving down protections of workers as well as standards for goods and imported foodstuffs, and gave the UK the dubious freedom of striking trade deals with whomever it pleased. In other words, Johnson is playing catch up when it comes to a Trump-first Brexit. Also, for sovereigntists of all political hues, including within Corbynism, the idea a state's control over and regulation of part of its territory is ceded to another state or supranational actor is anathema. Nothing says 'reduced status' quite like a constituent (half) nation of the UK lopped off and effectively run from elsewhere.

Contrary to what the BBC says, Johnson's plan does not get rid of the backstop. The backstop is whatever deal we end up with. What May proposed and Johnson is now proposing is a particular form the EU and Ireland's insurance policy should look like. Assume we leave with this new deal on time on 31st October. As the sun rises on 1st November, nothing will have changed. The UK would be outside of the EU and the MEPs will bid adieu to their parliament, but everything else is going to carry on as normal. This is because we have a transition period between the date of actual Brexit and the enactment of the new permanent relationship struck between the UK and EU - the much advertised but short-on-detail trade deal. As The Graun observed back in April, the problem is May's Article 50 extensions have eaten into the 21 months set aside by both parties to come to an agreement about this relationship. If, nevertheless these negotiations go fine and we have a new deal, then everything is tickety-boo. If not, extending the transition until an agreement is reached is possible, but it would likely cost the UK extra dough. And if that isn't extended the backstop governs the relationship between the two sides in perpetuity. Well, until it is replaced by a comprehensive trade deal or, lol, the UK rejoins the EU.

Given the farcical and lackadaisical approach shown by the Tories since Article 50 was triggered, I have zero confidence they'd negotiate a deal in time to prevent the backstop from coming into play. And, in all likelihood, the EU must be thinking the same. And so what does Johnson's deal have to offer? The UK as a whole will leave the customs union, which means the setting up of a border, um, away from the border. Cross border traders would require special licences based on existing trusted trader schemes, and exemptions for smaller businesses. And the actual checks themselves would take place in either special facilities physically situated away from the national border, or even in the premises of the firms concerned. Despite the customs border, Northern Ireland remains within the EU's single market and is tied to its regulations concerning food safety, food production, and manufacture whereas the rest of the UK leaves. Just like May's deal, mainland UK retains the freedom to do its own thing. Also, unlike May's deal, Stormont has a veto over the deal - every four years it will be asked whether it wishes to stay within the EU's orbit, or move back toward the UK's regulatory regime.

You can see the issues here. While it does advance a proviso for the north so it won't be "trapped" in the EU indefinitely, most criticisms made of May's deal apply here. The border in the Irish Sea is expanded, which would trouble a few of the sovereigntist squad. And it means a job creation scheme for some as a new layer of officialdom is added to police these arrangements. There are new problems too. It violates the agreement May signed in December 2017 guaranteeing no border infrastructure, and as Jeremy Corbyn noted in his Commons response, it stops the free flow of goods across the frontier. Indeed, the proposals are silent on the movement of people. Can Irish people from both sides nip back and forth across the border as they do now for work, shopping, family visits and the rest? And, given Priti Patel's blood curdling immigration speeches, how are the movements of non-Irish EU citizens going to get policed? Not technically insurmountable problems all told, but politically tricky.

Nevertheless, it was interesting to find our friends the ERG and DUP are supportive of the Johnson plan, despite replicating many of the problems they had with May's deal. Could it be their opposition was motivated by her catastrophic stumble at the last general election, the burning resentment at how she strung them along with talk of a hard Brexit, or even by simple sexism? I'm sure each of these have a role, but with polls now consistently giving remain a slight but stubborn lead, and opposition to their no deal dreams so firm it commands a substantial Commons majority, for them and the interests they constitute and represent getting a (still) hard Brexit across the line is crucial as backsliding looks ever more probable. Even if, as Stephen Bush has argued, it means making every Stormont election into a referendum on a united Ireland and one that, sooner rather than later, will see the unionists sink to a permanent defeat. Likewise from Johnson's point of view, if a deal is done his team have calculated that enough of the "ex" Tories (perhaps with the promise of restoring the whip), and recalcitrant Labour MPs are going to support any deal and give him the Commons majority that so eluded May. Indeed, not everything has to be worked out, goes the reasoning. The finer points of the backstop could be discussed and prepped for behind the scenes while most eyes are focused on the trade deal negotiations.

The EU, at least, were smart enough not to dismiss the proposals out of hand with some going so far as to welcome them as the basis for a new round of negotiations. Politically, it would suit Johnson more if Brussels was outlandishly noisy in their rejection of them - not just people vs the parliament, but the UK vs the EU would see the Tories mop up great swathes of the Brexit Party vote with ease. However, as the EU is much cannier than most British political pundits, they're not about to make it easy for Johnson to blame them for the failure of his scheme. Likewise in the Commons this afternoon, while setting out the terms of the plan he took an uncharacteristically conciliatory and calming tone, almost entirely as if he wanted his calm countenance to get assailed by insults, shouts and the rest. If he fails, Johnson can at least pretend to seriousness, and try and hang the no deal albatross on the opposition parties - to much, he hopes, electoral reward.

Where do we go next? Ireland aren't too keen, but we'll see what the coming rounds of "intensive talks" throw up. Either way, Johnson thinks he's played a blinder. The right are now on side, and he gets the kudos for piloting the UK out of the EU with a deal, something no one thought possible up until now, or it falls due to EU opposition and/or Labour-led Commons chicanery and he gets the plaudits for someone standing up against foreigners and traitors. The only thing preventing him from manoeuvring his way to this position is the lock down of the Article 50 extension by law. The game now is winning back the "ex" Tories and getting Brexity Labour on board. Can the opposition to Johnson remain firm, or are we about to see chunks of it fall through cavernous openings of their own timidity?


1729torus said...

Stormont's cross-community voting mechanisms and the need for 'parallel consent' mean in practice that the NI Assembly likely couldn't give assent to the backstop unless the DUP agreed to it - a majority of MLAs in favour probably wouldn't be enough.

DUP obviously won't agree to remain in the backstop.

It's a wheeze concocted by themselves and ERG.

Mike H said...

'Probably' is carrying a lot of weight in the comment by 1729torus Could you explain a little more please?