PM can’t square circle despite his desperation for a deal

by Hugo Dixon | 13.09.2019

MPs won’t let Boris Johnson crash out of the EU without a deal. So he’s now hunting for a deal. But he can’t square the EU and Parliament simultaneously. So this is likely to be just the latest in many hunts for the elusive unicorn.

The Prime Minister gives every impression of being desperate for a deal. He’s off to Luxembourg on Monday to have lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s president. He may see a few other EU leaders next week too.

But Johnson doesn’t have a deliverable plan. All he has is a sketch of an idea to solve the Irish border problem based on the notion that Northern Ireland’s cows are Irish and its people are British. He has offered the EU no detailed proposal and so the EU’s chief negotiator has said there’s no basis to reopen formal negotiations.

Alternative arrangements mumbo-jumbo

The Prime Minister’s idea is to have an all-Ireland economic zone for “agrifoods”. This would mean that Northern Ireland would follow EU “phytosanitary” rules. There would then be checks in the Irish Sea to ensure that British agricultural products don’t cross into Northern Ireland and then into the EU. This offer is supposed to keep the Irish border open without the need for the “backstop” that Theresa May negotiated with the EU. 

Johnson hates the backstop because it requires the whole UK to stay in a bare-bones customs union with the EU. It also requires Northern Ireland to follow EU rules on manufactured goods as well as agrifoods. What’s more, there would be checks on all products crossing the Irish Sea, not just agrifoods, to stop goods that don’t follow EU rules entering its single market by the back door.

The Prime Minister hopes to persuade the EU that these extra requirements aren’t needed. Instead, he is promising “alternative arrangements” to stop contraband products crossing the Irish border. Meanwhile, the UK won’t follow EU laws on competition and social policy, giving it the freedom to slash regulations to gain a competitive advantage.

EU will try to suck Johnson in

But why would the EU agree a deal like that? The “alternative arrangements” don’t exist. And without a rock-solid scheme to prevent non-compliant goods entering its market, the EU would be giving the UK back-door access to its single market.

We would be free to undercut EU producers because we wouldn’t be following its rules. And we would be free to import goods that are illegal in the EU like chlorine-washed chicken from America because we would be outside its customs union. Both domestically made goods and imports could then find their way into the EU via the open Irish border.

It’s not surprising that Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, said today that there is a “very wide gap” between the UK and the EU on Brexit. But the EU isn’t just going to say “no” to Johnson, as they don’t want to be blamed if the UK crashes out without a deal.

They also think he is so desperate for a deal that he might make more concessions. The key one would be to accept that at least Northern Ireland, if not the whole UK, should stay in the EU’s customs territory. There would then also need to be customs checks in the Irish Sea, not just controls on agrifoods.

Can’t sell it to Parliament

The snag is that Johnson’s allies, the DUP, would scream betrayal. The party may just be prepared to accept that Northern Ireland will follow EU phytosanitary rules. But the idea of following manufacturing and customs rules too – combined with stringent checks in the Irish Sea – would cause them to blow a gasket.

Dominic Cummings doesn’t seem bothered. “I don’t care if Northern Ireland falls into the fxxxing sea”, the Prime Minister’s top advisor told a senior Tory, according to the Sun. Some pundits add that the DUP’s 10 MPs don’t matter any longer because Johnson has lost his majority in the Commons anyway after expelling 21 Tories and losing a couple more last week.

But this ignores the fact that the Prime Minister will still need to get MPs’ support for any deal. Perhaps 20 “Spartans” – the hardline members of the Tories’ ERG group – will say “no”. Add in 10 DUP MPs and he has a mountain to climb.

Johnson may hope to persuade enough Labour MPs and former Conservatives to fill the gap. But most of the Tories kicked out of the party don’t want Northern Ireland to fall into the sea. They really care about keeping the UK together.

If the Prime Minister is determined to get a deal through Parliament, his best bet would be to agree to put it to the people in a referendum, with the alternative being to stay in the EU. There would be a majority of MPs for that. But Nigel Farage would then scream blue murder.

Whichever way you look at it, Johnson is boxed in.

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Edited by Rachel Franklin

Categories: Brexit, UK Politics

3 Responses to “PM can’t square circle despite his desperation for a deal”

  • A form of phyto-sanitary controls already exists between UK mainland and NI; there is no reason why this cannot be seamlessly added onto, without issues of sovereignty being considered.
    The majority of NI population voted to remain and given the special status of NI in all sort of ways, the geographical dimension of democracy should also be upheld….in this respect the DUP are not representative of the people and SF places its abstentionist policy ahead of constructive opposition in Westminster.
    There is an estimated half a million Irish nationals in the UK and six million Britons are said to have an Irish grandparent (and eligible for Irish passports); this Irish heritage identity group could obliterate DUP influence if it was constructively mobilised and also hold a major electoral influence in a large number of marginal parliamentary seats.

  • A very apposite comment, Joseph. Few MPs have any deep understanding of Irish history. I have asked my MP, Suella Braverman, to tell me what she knows about Ireland. She does not answer. She is about 38, I think, so does not even have any handle on recent history since 1969. I am 72 and remember the troubles very clearly and if those dark days returned it would be a disaster. I wish Mo Mowlem was still with us because she would lay into these abject Tories.
    I have an Irish great grandfather who came to this country after the famine of the 1840s. Sadly for me, my grandfather, was born in this country and I therefore am illegible for an Irish passport.
    The Tories should read the history books and take note of the role the Irish famine played in dividing their lousy party in 1846. They are risking the same now. It defies belief.

  • There appears to be an engrained imperial strand running through the psyche of the ERG wing of the Tory party which corrodes their political strategies towards Ireland and poisons the dialogue of two equal partners. It is difficult not to catch a whiff of residual colonialism in the conversation, Just contrast the appraisal of Johnson’s envoy to the EU, Barclay with that of Cowan, the Deputy Irish PM on progress in talks. We should avoid at all costs the decline in British-Irish relations of the 1960s-1980, which I have personally experienced from the borderlands, where three to four layers of security forces were commonplace and completely gutted economic activities. The voice of William D. Taylor above resonates.