Johnson’s dishonesty and disorganisation on Irish Sea border

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 09.12.2019

Boris Johnson’s Brexit message is based on two big promises. First, that there will be no checks and tariffs on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Second, that he will have negotiated and implemented a new trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020. 

We already knew that he was lying about the first pledge. Now a leaked Department for Exiting the European Union document shows that the government probably won’t be able to achieve the second. 

The Northern Irish protocol – or ‘frontstop’ – means that when the UK leaves the EU, Northern Ireland will be left behind in the single market and in the EU customs code. If goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are “at risk” of crossing the border into the Republic, then they will face EU tariffs. A new analysis from the UK Trade Policy Observatory reckons as much as 75% of goods imports into Northern Ireland could be subject to tariffs. If they remain in Northern Ireland, importers will be eligible in principle for a rebate, although claiming this may be challenging. 

This means putting the necessary customs infrastructure in place. And this in turn is a significant problem for HMRC. The Financial Times reports that a leaked document states that “delivery of the required infrastructure, associated systems, and staffing… by December 2020 represents a major strategic, political and operational challenge”. What’s more, “delivery on the ground would need to commence before we know the outcome of negotiations”. 

The problem for Johnson is that as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, the protocol is the future relationship. If his government isn’t ready to put that in place, it’s hard to see how it can have its shiny new deal. If Johnson genuinely does want a new Canada-style free trade agreement – and isn’t planning on a no-trade-deal Brexit next December – then it’s unlikely that the EU will conclude talks before the protocol is ready to be implemented.  

That means finding a way to extend our current trade arrangements. The simplest way of doing so would be to use the extension period of one or two years contained in the withdrawal agreement. Johnson has sworn until blue in the face that he will never, ever do this. Then again, he also said he’d die in a ditch rather than extend the last Brexit deadline, but did it anyway.

If even Johnson finds this a stretch, he could simply opt to fudge the transition extension. The EU would surely be willing to negotiate something very similar to the current transition provisions suitably rebranded for a domestic audience, so long as the UK was willing to cough up for the privilege. Perhaps we could call it a transition from the transition? 

While this would probably be a good thing for the British economy, it would directly contradict the promises Johnson is making to the voters. Rather than selling a simplistic narrative of ‘getting Brexit done’, he should be honest about the trials and tribulations to come. To do anything less will be setting his party up for a hard fall in the new year.

Edited by Alan Wheatley

2 Responses to “Johnson’s dishonesty and disorganisation on Irish Sea border”

  • Paul Scully on the BBC’s midday politics programme was dire. He said that there would be no checks on the movement of goods between NI and GB, just some digital forms for businesses to ‘fill in’. They really are liars. Filling in forms without them being checked? Really?
    Scully also said the problems in the NHS were caused by Labour overspending 9 years ago. It really is despairing stuff. Please God they don’t get a majority.

  • I have always wondered how it was supposed to work that there would be customs checks in the middle of the sea between Northern Ireland and Britain. Anyone who has ever been on a ferry knows that for a variety of reasons the vehicles are packed so tightly it would be hard to get a sheet of paper between the vehicles, never mind look at what vehicles are there and what their contents are. What were the customs officials supposed to use to check these things, Xray vision?!