Adventures in Brexitland
Never mind a week; twenty-four hours is a long time in Brexit politics. On Sunday night, the Financial Times’s Peter Foster broke the news that Boris Johnson’s government was preparing legislation that would nullify the withdrawal agreement the prime minister had reached with the European Union. The proposed internal market bill would override the Northern Ireland protocol, designed to ensure that there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland.
Unusually for Number 10 – which seems to like issuing verbose, often tendentious rebuttals of Foster’s reporting – there was minimal pushback against the FT’s scoop. Instead, on Monday morning’s Today programme, the environment secretary, George Eustice, assured listeners that the bill was just ‘tying up loose ends’.
Eustice, a former Ukip candidate for the European Parliament, can’t have spoken to his cabinet colleague Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary. On Tuesday, Lewis told the Commons that the new bill would indeed unilaterally alter the withdrawal agreement, thereby breaking international law. But not to worry, Lewis went on, it would only break the law in ‘a very limited and specific way’.
The Treasury solicitor, Jonathan Jones, resigned soon afterwards. He gave no reason for his departure, but newspaper reports suggested he had clashed with Suella Braverman, the attorney general. If Braverman, a former chair of the hardline pro-Brexit European Research Group of backbench Tory MPs, has concerns about the government’s stated intention to break international law, she has kept them to herself.
The publication of the Internal Market Bill, on Wednesday, was preceded by public criticism of Johnson by two of his predecessors, Theresa May and John Major. When the text appeared, it was not – as some Conservative MPs had vainly hoped – less inflammatory than leaked reports had suggested. If passed, the bill would effectively end any EU influence over the UK, including Northern Ireland, in direct contravention of last October’s deal. In the Lords, another former Tory leader, the Brexit-supporting Michael Howard, excoriated Johnson’s administration. ‘How can we reproach Russia, or China, or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards,’ he asked, ‘when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?’ How indeed.
Talk of a no-deal exit has grown sharply in Westminster in recent weeks. In Brussels, Britain’s treaty abrogation is taken as clear evidence that Johnson has no interest in a Brexit deal. Reports have circulated that the EU is studying the possibility of legal action against the UK. Once the transition period ends, Brussels could also trigger the dispute settlement mechanism, with the possibility of financial sanctions.
The damage to diplomatic relations is obvious, particularly on the other side of the Irish Sea, where once again Brexit is fast replacing Covid-19 as the main item on the news agenda. ‘Trust has been eroded,’ the taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said today, as the EU and UK prepared to hold emergency talks on the withdrawal agreement’s implementation.
Less obvious is what Johnson and his Vote Leave administration have gained from the week’s machinations. At one stage a press spokesman for Number 10 said that October’s deal – which the Conservatives won a general election on the back of – needed to be rewritten because it had been rushed through without time for scrutiny. Then it emerged that the new Internal Market Bill would be fast-tracked through the Commons.
Johnson risks reopening the old wounds within his own party. Some Tory MPs have said that they will not support the Internal Market Bill – though history suggests that what’s left of the party’s moderates will stop short of causing the prime minister any real difficulties – while the far more combative European Research Group has been reanimated by the prospect of pulling even further away from the EU.
Just as no deal has been rebranded as an ‘Australia-style’ arrangement with the EU, the purpose of Brexit itself is being constantly redefined. State aid is the new ‘blood red line’. As an often-reluctant EU member, Britain was among the most vocal supporters of the union’s state aid rules. Now Dominic Cummings is said to be consumed by the prospect of building ‘$1 trillion tech companies’ in the UK.
It is still possible, of course, that all we have seen over the past week is an embattled prime minister leaning into his core political skill: theatrics. The breathless news reports, the dire warnings of impending doom, all brought back memories of the gridlock of the last parliament that the Conservatives promised an escape from. But now it is Boris Johnson who has decided to restage the Brexit show. And it’s not at all clear that he knows why, or how to stop the spectacle even if he wanted to.