This column predated the meeting between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister. Here I look at what is behind the Brexiteer’s obsession with getting rid of the Backstop (be it Northern Ireland only or UK wide. It first appeared here on Broadsheet.ie on October 7th.
Opening his Sunday morning BBC1 show yesterday, Andrew Marr wondered if Boris Johnson’s cunning Brexit plan was to pretend that he has a cunning plan to cover the fact that he doesn’t have a cunning plan.
Mr Marr has a point. Most of Johnson’s cunning plans have thus far failed. His ruse to prorogue parliament was demolished by the Supreme Court, and he has still to win a single vote in the House of Commons. He entered Downing Street at the head of a government with a majority (via the DUP) of one. Now, thanks to his handling of the grandest of the Tory grandees, it has a majority of minus 42.
Yet, despite these failures and setbacks, Johnson is doing well in the polls. The Tories now enjoy a steady lead over the Labour party of anywhere between 7% and 13% (YouGov polling). As with John F Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis, it seems that the worse he does, the more popular he gets.
This is Johnson’s cunning plan. A speedy election putting the Tories back with a solid majority, no longer dependant on the DUP and ERG. Johnson believes in nothing as deeply as he believes in his destiny to lead.
Much of the analysis of Johnson’s recent Backstop replacement pitch has concluded, wrongly in my opinion, that it is solely motivated by a desire to deliver a No Deal Brexit where the EU gets the blame.
There is some truth to this analysis, but the proposal has more depth to it than just this. We do ourselves no favours by not considering its underlying strategy.
Without question the latest British proposals do not satisfy Irish or EU demands for the protection of the Good Friday Agreement, but they are not intended to. The British have moved, not compromised, and have done it for a reason.
The proposal are not about dismantling the Backstop per se, it is about turning back the clock and rerunning the negotiations with the benefit of hindsight.
When the negotiation process started in April 2017 the UK and EU agreed it would be done in two phases. The first phase would deal with the “divorce” issues arising from the UK leaving the EU and would have three distinct elements:
- Guaranteeing citizens’ rights for EU citizens in the UK and vice-versa;
- Settling the UK’s financial commitments;
- Ireland and Northern Ireland specific issues.
Only when full agreement on these three topics was reached could negotiations move to Phase 2. Phase would deal with the future relationships between the EU and UK.
We are still at the Northern Ireland element of phase 1.
Hard line Brexiteers, including some in Cabinet, opposed May agreeing to this timetable and sequence seeing it as a grave tactical error. They saw the requirement to agree Irish Border issues in Phase 1 as depriving them of having the border as negotiating leverage in the future trading talks in Phase 2.
Now that the Brexiteers hold sway in Number 10 they are determined to unpick the process. The latest British proposal is their attempt to turn back the clock and move the resolution of the Irish border from Phase 1 to Phase 2.
While they may claim that kicking the fine detail of Irish border arrangements past the withdrawal agreement is because the issue is so complex and tied up with future EU/UK trading relationships, it is all about leverage.
It is why Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois have fetishised the Backstop. This had nothing to do with concern for Northern Ireland, the consent of Stormont or the precious union, but had all to do instead with Britain, i.e. England, competing with the EU after Brexit as a Singapore-Sur-Thames.
The Backstop never posed a threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, but Brexiteers knew they needed a highly charged argument on which to focus if they were to undo May’s denial of the border as leverage. They quickly identified the Backstop as that focus and set about hyper charging a straight-forward matter into an issue of constitutional consequence.
How could the Backstop be such a threat when it has only ever been an insurance policy to ensure the commitments (at Paragraph 49 of 2017 EU/UK joint report) made by the British government to support the all-island economy and North/South alignment were honoured. It says:
In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.
The chances of the Backstop ever being invoked were intended to be quite low. It is only come into effect if the UK went for maximum realignment and divergence from existing EU rules and regulations. We now know that this is precisely the route Johnson, and his financial backers, plan to go. He even said it in his August letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk, twice even:
“…the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”
“…we cannot continue to endorse the specific commitment, in paragraph 49 of the December 2017 Joint Report, to ‘full alignment’ with wide areas of the single market and the customs union.”
His solution is to therefore offer vague and hazy, last minute proposals in the hope that an EU eager to avoid a no-deal speedily inserts them into Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement in place of the existing Northern Ireland protocols.
It’s a risky strategy. He may feel he can pull it off by stressing to the EU that he can get his version through Parliament and that the EU will get the twin benefits of (i) avoiding the mayhem of a no-deal-crash out and (ii) a future British negotiating partner (post UK election) with a majority to deliver what they agree at talks.
It is not a totally unattractive package, but Johnson is still the one who gets the most. He secures his position for five more years, goes down in political history as the man who delivered Brexit, but most importantly he gets the leverage he vitally needs in Phase 2.
He knows the EU is committed to protecting the Good Friday Agreement and he is happy to do that in Phase 2 in return for a trade deal that benefits England.
The ease with which he has proposed two borders is the giveaway. The border in the Irish Sea to protect the EU Single Market is a hint of how much further he is prepared to go. The Customs Border across the island is just there to be negotiated away.
Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay was keen to remind Marr in an interview yesterday that: “…we are talking about 1% of the total UK-EU trade, so there needs to be a degree of proportionality about this.” The 1% refers to Northern Ireland trade.
Barclay and David Frost, Johnson’s lead Brexit negotiator have spent weeks touring EU capitals, including Dublin. They have heard Irish concerns on protecting the all-island agri-food sector and heeded it, hence the Single Market protections they have foisted on the DUP.
What the DUP seems to have not yet realised is that this is all just a ploy. What Johnson wants and needs is a Phase 2 process free of any dependence on the DUP or their Brexiteer allies. Then he can deliver the Northern Ireland only backstop that May agreed, or something similar, but at a much higher price.
It’s quite a smart strategy from an English Tory point of view, but it is not one that will work. It won’t work because it repeats the same basic mistake that the UK has made since day one, it misreads the EU and fails to understand how it works.
Still, you cannot help admiring Johnson’s sheer brazenness in trying it.