Johnson and Hunt say backstop is dead. But for how long?

by Nick Kent | 16.07.2019

Both candidates for the Tory leadership have hardened their Brexit positions and declared the Northern Ireland backstop “dead”.  But it may be too soon to read the last rites.

Ever since Theresa May agreed in December 2017 to the backstop to prevent a hard border returning in Ireland, it has bedevilled the Brexit process.  The problem was that her three red lines – ruling out the UK being part of either the EU’s customs union, the single market or accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court – made it almost impossible to leave the EU and protect the hard-won Good Friday Agreement.  That agreement was constructed on the basis of the UK and Ireland both being EU members, and its drafters did not imagine that either country would leave.

Eighteen months on, and several failed attempts later, the backstop issue is unresolved.  In a shabby exercise in macho posturing, the two Tory leadership contenders have been making increasingly more extreme promises in order to attract the votes of their Brexit Party supporting membership.  On Monday night they went an important step further by claiming that it is now “dead”.

Without the backstop there is no deal with the EU; so if the backstop is “dead” and the EU won’t agree to drop it, then it is more likely that the UK will crash out on October 31.  Understandably, reaction to last night’s shift by Hunt and Johnson has focused on this danger. Certainly, if neither side budges on the question, then the risk of no deal rises. But it may be too early to read the last rites for the backstop.

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The backstop matters because the EU has made clear it will not accept its removal as without it Ireland would have no guarantee that the border would stay open.  The EU would also have no guarantee that its single market rules would be enforced, potentially allowing the border to become a backdoor route for illegal migrants, counterfeit and unsafe goods and smuggling.  

And the issues the backstop is intended to address matter to the UK too.  A hard border would risk the return of attacks on border checkpoints, undermine the confidence that the peace process has brought to both communities and endanger vital cross-border trade.  Nor is it in the UK’s interest for people smugglers to believe they could get migrants into the UK via the 310 mile-long unfenced Anglo-Irish border. No British government could ignore that.

Claims that neither the UK nor Ireland would impose border controls after a no deal Brexit are yet another unicorn.  Both countries would have to do so to comply with their obligations as members of the World Trade Organisation and Ireland because it is in the EU.

Part of the reason for Hunt and Johnson hardening their positions is that attempts to come up with an alternative to the backstop have failed.  The Brexiters’ chief trade guru, Shankar Singham, admitted last Friday that the only way there could be no checks and controls on the border was if Northern Ireland stays in the single market and the customs union after Brexit.

However much the backstop is disliked, it has not been replaced because of the lack of a credible alternative.  Hunt and Johnson can declare it dead but that doesn’t solve the problem it was created to address. And crashing out without a deal would, by empowering the men of violence, risk replacing one problem on the border with another.  The winning Tory leadership candidate may find himself trying to resurrect the backstop before the year is out.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “Johnson and Hunt say backstop is dead. But for how long?”

  • The dangers of all this posturing by these two clowns in claiming the backstop is dead were brutally explained by John Sullivan’s replies to the story, ‘Dublin unicorns’ (15 July 2019).
    I don’t think either Johnson or Hunt or most U.K. politicians (let alone the population at large) have the foggiest understanding of Irish history, Irish politics, or indeed, the feelings and opinions of the Irish people. I refer you to the ignorance of the Secretary of State for NI.
    I would imagine also that the 160000 members of the Tory Party know little about or care about the Irish people. Johnson and Hunt are playing with fire and when all their blag is eventually called out they will simply walk away from the wreckage, as in the case of Cameron who started all this nonsense in the first place.

  • Agreed. It seems incredible that all this is happening in the UK. Indeed as the last head of MI 5 described it, the UK is having a political nervous breakdown.But what is it about Brexit which has brought the country and its elected politicians to this state ?
    The genie of rampant, ignorant nationalism is out of the bottle and is playing havoc with the people and institutions of the country. And yes, this can even happen in the UK , or more accurately England. So we are no different from other nations or people elsewhere in the world ?

  • The amount of ignorance and resultant clueless hubris shown by the UK government is hard to watch. This is a 21st century Western European nation? I am really sorry but the similarity to images and behaviour of the nazis in the 1930’s is slowly but inexorably getting clearer. Can’t anyone see that Joker Johnson is leading the UZ into a situation where it is bound to disintegrate? As did Germany after 1945 until more than four decades later? Best thing so far is that no war has yet considered to be necessary to continue diplomacy with other means.

  • To be blunt, if the UK breaks up, I shall shed no tears. As a Scot living in the EU, the sooner I can reclaim my EU citizenship, the better. And if Scotland votes to leave the sinking ship, it is logical to believe that their next step would be application to rejoin the other 27 largely sensible nations.

    On that score, why has no leaver yet asked the obvious question – why are no other countries gagging to leave the EU ??