Adventures in Brexitland

Peter Geoghegan

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.


  • 11 September 2020 at 10:24am
    Joe Morison says:
    When Trump was elected and then not long after Brexit won the referendum, I, like I imagine most LRB readers, predicted that both would be a disaster. But I think most of us suspected that our deep ideological detestation of both had led us to over inflate the dangers, and that in fact things would not be as bad as we were predicting. It’s appalling and extraordinary that both have turned out to be far worse than our worst fears. The depths of Trump’s iniquity surprise us almost every day even when we have told ourselves again and again that nothing new he does could surprise us. And as for Brexit, we knew it was going to trash our reputation in the world, but did any of us seriously imagine that a British Prime Minister would be standing up and proudly proclaiming that we will break international law? How the mighty have fallen.

    • 13 September 2020 at 8:39pm
      xi dong says: @ Joe Morison
      I think you are conflating two different issues.

      First, Brexit itself and secondly the negotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement. How Brexit will turn out, it is too early to say.

      But the negotiation of the WA was amateur by the UK. The EU was far better prepared and had a clear negotiating strategy, and had of course a stronger and firmer negotiating position. The UK Government's - Mrs May's - opening position was to get back as close as possible to the status quo ante of being in the EU. That was a desperate position to take.

      The subsequent, Johnson, position was bluster and simply adopted the EU's original position on NI - to partition it from the rest of the UK. That chicken is coming home to roost as the Government reads what it has agreed.

      Whether the Government implements the provisions of the Internal Market Bill remains to be seen. The drafting is clear but will damage the UK's reputation. Better drafting (e.g. fall back language if the EU/UK joint committee fails to agree) would have given better cover. The timing is bizarre as well; it would have been better understood if it had come after a trade deal or the abandonment of one. Yet more evidence of the amateurism prevalent amongst both MPs and civil servants.

    • 14 September 2020 at 2:30pm
      Joe Morison says: @ xi dong
      ‘Brexit’ is a portmanteau word, a melding of ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’. Therefore, if anything, it refers more to the act of leaving than it does to the condition of having left. Either way, the process is undoubtedly an integral part of it; and the utter shit show that we are now enduring is only a taste of what is to come.

      Britain used to be respected (far more, probably, than we deserved); but that is now turning to pity and contempt in equal measure. Hubris, nemesis, bathos: it’s a classic fuck-up.

    • 14 September 2020 at 7:09pm
      xi dong says: @ Joe Morison
      This latest issue with the Internal Market Bill does not help the UK's creditworthiness but then freezing Iceland's banks in the UK under terrorism legislation during the financial crisis did not do so either and yet it seems to have passed. The current enquiry into judicial review needs to be watched to ensure that the courts are seen to be clear of political interference.

      Brexit - ie the UK's post-departure status - could be a success. We are likely to see a more nimble government emerging. It requires quality government to get there. Dominic Cummings is right in his quest to improve the calibre of the civil service, since we are poorly served by it now, as the pandemic has shown. This requires an attention to detail that Margaret Thatcher always showed. The current issues with the Withdrawal Agreement and OfQual's A level results both derive from lack of such attention.

    • 15 September 2020 at 8:25am
      Joe Morison says: @ xi dong
      I think we have a very fine civil service (which isn’t to say that there isn’t considerable scope for improvement) - you’ve been listening to too much Tory campaign propaganda. As for blaming them for our disastrous pandemic response, the responsibility for that lies entirely with the government and their Trumpian let it be mentality.

      As for suggesting we might get a more nimble government post-Brexit, what on earth makes you think that? The fools and knaves that make up this administration are to nimble governance what hippopotamuses are to ballet. As for Cummings, he’s like a little boy whose one skill was the mendacious, illegal, and vicious campaigns that got him his prize where he can indulge his utterly delusional dreams of himself as the creator of trillion dollar tech companies. He’s turned out to be as incompetent at the business of governing as he was convincing in his lies about breaking lockdown. Basing your hopes on Johnson and Cummings is about as sensible as doing so on Bozo the Clown and Walter Mitty.

    • 15 September 2020 at 2:39pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Joe Morison
      Erratum: as competent at the business of governing as ...

    • 15 September 2020 at 4:38pm
      ianbrowne says: @ xi dong
      I would query the reference to Thatcher's attention to detail. We have some excellent biographies and memoirs which give the lie to her supposed mastery of detail. Most people saw Thatcher's attention to detail as irrelevant meddling on the basis of a superrficial reading of cabinet papers.

      The story of how she agreed to the Anglo-Irish agreement on 1985 is quite telling. The civil servants who drafted it deliberately included phrases she could not countenance, so that she had one of her hissy-fits about the wording, and insisted on changes to some of the wording. But in focussing on a few phrases she didn't like she completely misssed the broader purpose of it, which, of course, was the intention of the people who drafted it. It was only after she left office she began to garsp the significance of what she had agreed. At that point she said she wished she hadn't signed it, and that it was a big mistake. Quite simply she hqd no idea what she had signed.

      As one of her minister's remarked, she was the master of the irrelevant detail.

  • 11 September 2020 at 11:07am
    Graucho says:
    So if I have it right: the PM inserts clauses into the withdrawal agreement, calls an election so that he can get it through parliament ASAP, signs the agreement and now wants to resile on those clauses. Sounds like the definition of a double cross to me.

  • 11 September 2020 at 11:32am
    staberinde says:
    It's fascinating how anyone vaguely progressive can be branded a dangerous radical, while anyone vaguely on the Right can be as radical as they wish without anywhere near the same level of hysteria.

    The lesson is therefore for progressives to join the Conservative Party, which now believes in £100bn 'moonshots' that dwarf the defence budget, vast levels of debt-fuelled spending, rail nationalisation and applauding the NHS on Thursdays.

    In the last century, the 1945 election represented the one moment when radicalism was allowed to come from the Left. Thereafter, radicalism has only ever worked for Tories.

    It strikes me that the radical Left can now only object to what Conservatives say rather than what they do.

    The law has never been a barrier to radicals. It didn't stop BLM protesters tipping a statue into Bristol harbour, and the Brexit ultras won't let it stand in their way either.

    So it's useful to know whether progressive critics of the government are merely pointing out Conservative hypocrisy, or have a genuine concern for the rule of law. If the latter, they'd do well to remember that next time they take a spray can to a protest.

    • 11 September 2020 at 3:14pm
      Joe Morison says: @ staberinde
      It’s a fair point, but the charge of hypocrisy is still a legitimate and powerful one. I’m sure everyone posting here considers queer relationships as valid as heteronormative ones, and I’d guess a fair number of us think it’s not the state’s business to stop adults taking methamphetamine (no matter how hideous we happen to think the drug is) if that’s what they want to do. But holding those beliefs doesn’t invalidate our excoriation of Ted Haggard for extensively doing both whilst President of the National Association of Evangelicals and preaching their sinfulness.

    • 11 September 2020 at 5:35pm
      staberinde says: @ Joe Morison
      I fear it's a less powerful charge than you hope.

      The country voted - eyes open - to elect the lying leader of a rebel movement. They wear their pirate values proudly, and relish the opportunity to break conventions, tear-up treaties and break rules. Their brand of English exceptionalism resonated with people who'd waited patiently for reasonableness to deliver for them, and fancied a roll of the dice.

      "Look! They're scoundrels!

      "Yes, we know. And?"

    • 11 September 2020 at 5:48pm
      Joe Morison says: @ staberinde
      I have faith in the judgement of history, I hope to live to see it.

    • 12 September 2020 at 8:08pm
      Felix Schulte says: @ staberinde
      Surely you must acknowlege that comparing a misdemeanor like spray-painting by a street protester to the willfull breaking of international law by the prime minister is categorically awkward?

    • 16 September 2020 at 5:52pm
      OldScrounger says: @ Joe Morison
      Such a comfort.

    • 17 September 2020 at 8:43am
      Joe Morison says: @ OldScrounger
      Well, yes, I do think it’s a comfort. Because it means these people are not going to win, that history is not wit h them. I like to think that we’re in a situation analogous to European progressives in the mid-nineteenth century. Imagine you were alive in the 1850s: the revolutions of 1848 had all been crushed, Napoleon had revealed himself as a dictatorial emperor, the Habsburgs had cracked down are were imposing a regime even more illiberal than before - it was the same all over Europe. But this was no reversal of the Enlightenment, it was a blip, five steps back before seven forward; and before long things were better than ever.

      I think it’s the same now because I believe truth will out. These people who have fallen for the ludicrous anti-scientific lies of the populists will, in a few years, be able to see how many of their loved ones have died from the eschewing of masks and social distancing, how many of them are now living with chronic health conditions as a result. When Trump is finally prized from office (please please let it be this November/January) he will no longer be able to use his power to hide his malfeasance and the depths of his depravity will be exposed. I also think the inevitable violent reaction from his supporters if he does lose may be enough to make the US say, ‘Never again!’ Over here, the folly of Brexit and the lies told to achieve it will have become obvious.

      Of course, this may all be wishful thinking. Perhaps we really are headed into a new dark age, but I’m an optimist - I believe in the power of truth and compassion.

  • 11 September 2020 at 3:54pm
    Simon Wood says:
    If Johnson can make all this seem good, that would be good, but he is no good at it. This is the major revelation about his leadership, that he is so wobbly, with all those food jokes.

    He has been handed a wonderful catastrophe on a plate to cometh the hour, cometh the man at.

    Come in Boris, be a lion.


  • 12 September 2020 at 3:39pm
    Gareth Jenkins says:
    However shocked and dismayed one may feel, there seems little prospect of stopping the ERG juggernaut rolling ever onward. Yes, the British people, at least the English and the Welsh, voted for Brexit and put the current buffoon in No. 10 and, as the author suggests, there is unlikely to be a significant Tory backbench revolt. It is also inconceivable, even if it did miscalculate (unlikely) that the government could row this one back. So we are most likely left with the prospect of the ERG extremists eventually crashing on the rocks of reality: Scottish independence, Irish reunification, relegation to the junior league within Europe and internationally, climate catastrophe, economic collapse and relative economic decline. The idea that Cummings is going to build a £1 trillion tech industry is about as credible as him launching a successful airline in Russia.

    It has been pointed out that whereas the rest of Europe suffered humiliation and collapse as a result of World War II and went on to restructure their societies, military support from the USA allowed Britain to pretend it had won the war and muddle along with imperial pretensions to the present day. As the son of a man who, aged 19, was one of the last to get back from Dunkirk, and who four years later was a paratrooper at the horrific battle of Arnhem, the idea of the British state as incompetent, mendacious and hypocritical is part of my DNA. Perhaps political and social regeneration is only possible for Britain once the original imperial project is finally blown apart. We have to hope that the rising youth movements to mitigate the impact of climate change, to eradicate systemic racism and to fight for social justice make headway. Concerned liberals, however good their intentions, will never on their own face down the right wing Leninist zealots.

    • 12 September 2020 at 6:40pm
      Simon Matthews says: @ Gareth Jenkins
      Agree with all this. But: the only point that Brexit ever had was to convert the UK into the worlds largest tax haven, run by a compliant political cast selected by those funding Brexit. Everything else is just hot air. This will only be "stopped" when the scattered opposition make common cause to defeat it.

    • 13 September 2020 at 8:32am
      Sandra Pogodda says: @ Simon Matthews
      I agree with this, but I think Brexit has its place in a broader global strategy to push back rights and equality and reverse the loss of US and UK control. It connects dirty industries to super-profits, tax havens, and the rejection of progressive politics through disinformation.

      But the scattered opposition, here and in the US, have marginal agency in the face of this complex of political, economic, and oligarchic power. The opposition actually have to unite with some energy and backbone otherwise they will end up being ignored again. Discourse, it turns out, is not enough. There needs to be material resistance, not just fine words, or even merely depending on the law (which has been blunted now by politicisation). It needs to be coordinated not just nationationally, but internationally (all these are old lessons, aren't they, which we seem to have forgotten). The most effective strategy so far in the UK has probably been XR's blockades.

      All the rest has been hot air in 19th C institutions, easily bypassed. The situation has spiralled, with hints of Weimar's mistaken trust and hope that the worst wouldn't happen. We need to reinvent for the modern age something like the national strike on a transnational scale. Opposition parties and groups need to unite and drop petty differences and create an extended alliance despite them, and rally around new progressive causes, including environmental/ economic reform, equality, sustainability, global justice etc. Nationalism needs to be made illegal next time round. Media control, social and traditional needs to be broken up and governed by effective laws. Corruption and tax evasion need broader definitions and more powerful sanctions. The youth vote needs to be opened up. There are still so many loop holes that retrogressive forces can crawl through. Remember, not that long ago, in the US and in the UK, far right and even conservative politics seemed completely anachronistic and marginal. Now they are back, and they won't easily let go, even if it means breaking the law, wrecking everything, etc.

  • 12 September 2020 at 10:00pm
    Sharmini Mahendran says:
    I’m a registered Democrat in New York City (currently living out the Trump era in Toronto), went to Harvard Law School and have practised law for 30yrs. Despite these fairly liberal and internationalist credentials, I can’t work up to the public outrage at the unilateral treaty modification. The hubris and incompetence of the EU and its bureaucracy is evident on many fronts (including in my legal sphere) and one is sympathetic towards the desire to shake them off. They may thunder pacta sunt servanda but any legal theorist and philosopher can come up with examples of deviations from this principle even in the modern era as well as a convincing legal realist argument against these legal principles for being buttresses of a conservative social order that must be modified to maintain popular legitimacy.

  • 12 September 2020 at 10:10pm
    Elizabeth Tout says:
    “Just as no deal has been rebranded as an ‘Australia-style’ arrangement with the EU...”. Why do I see the hands of that extreme Brexiteer, former Australian PM Tony Abbott, all over this? Just weary knowledge of his track record and continuing aspirations, I guess.

  • 12 September 2020 at 11:23pm
    derek hackett says:
    Clearly Germany would not have found herself at war with the UK in August, 1914 if, instead of talking about "a scrap of paper" to Sir Edward Goschen, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg had merely said that Germany's invasion of Belgium " does break international law" but only "in a very specific and limited way", in the words of Brandon Lewis. So, no need for England to get her knickers in a twist: it's merely a minor infraction of international law so what's the big deal? What's all the fuss and shouting about?

  • 13 September 2020 at 12:03am
    Graucho says:
    We only ever had two cards to play at the start of the Brexit negotiations. The money and the Irish border (a big problem for the EU given the smuggling possibilities). A two stage negotiation, money first trade later was a cunning ploy by the EU to get us to throw those cards away so we would be powerless in trade talks. Like idiots the Tories fell for it. The time to walk away from the table was back then, not now. It's been the most miserable effort on their part to negotiate a treaty since Munich (apologies for another WW2 reference in the context of Brexit).

    • 13 September 2020 at 8:48pm
      xi dong says: @ Graucho
      Quite so. May was inexperienced and she and the rest of her team didn't believe in what they were doing.

  • 13 September 2020 at 2:08am
    Robert r Calder says:
    I do know people who were born and grew up in different countries across the water, and I have kept company with some very senior translators and interpreters, and the waffle of Brandon does ring a lot of bells with tales of statements made by Brits which continental Europeans read very differently from what was intended by this and that parochial ignoramus. Brandon might not have known quite what he was saying, and have even less idea what continental Europeans would have understood him to be saying: like a slight matter summed up loosely in abstract terms which some of the EU officials would take as serious and big and fundamental. Whether it's been Bwreckship or Indiereff my own impression has been that the Westminestrone gang and their supporters, and the Holyrood mob, alike mistake for hostility the normal opposition of people with their own reasonable priorities for some sort of passing mood or incidental obstructionism. Why should the EU people act like an indulgent mother continuing to favour a child or brat hitherto spoiled? What a wailing and gnashing of gums there might be when the idiot regressives hear the word "no" when it's sane to expect nothing else. It wouldn't be hostility, it's rather that governments owe their constituents a living, and coronavirus and bwreckship and other problems of the moment are being set up like the plot of a disaster movie, too much action interfering with too much other overworked action, with built in disadvantages for the survivors.

  • 13 September 2020 at 10:35am
    xi dong says:
    That doesn't sound like the version of the Internal Market Bill that I am reading.
    The Bill gives ministers the power to make regulations. As such it doesn't override anything, and it was incorrect of Brandon Lewis to say it did.

    Much of what it authorises - such as to disapply some EU case law - may result from agreement with the EU in the Joint Committee. Even the clauses that expressly authorise action that is contrary to international law simply give domestic authority for actions that the UK government has always been able to do internationally - to make and unmake treaties.

    Whether the UK Government will use these powers remains to be seen. It ought to reconcile itself to the fact that in the NI Protocol it signed up to the partition of the United Kingdom.

  • 13 September 2020 at 3:09pm
    Dialogist says:
    Let's not be naive here. Why is the Prime Minister openly breaking the trust not only of the international community but also of the British people who voted for him less than a year ago? It does not take three words, but only three letters: DUP, and behind them, large amounts of mainly non-British money.

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