What on earth does Boris want on Brexit?

by Luke Lythgoe | 14.02.2019

What on earth does Boris Johnson want on Brexit? His fluctuating position on the government’s deal, and the Irish border “backstop” in particular, continues to baffle. Having originally signed off on the backstop, he has since called for it to be “junked”. Now he has softened his stance.

Johnson has a long history with the Irish border and Brexit. As Vote Leave’s frontman back in 2016 he insisted that keeping the border as open as it is now wouldn’t be a problem. He was wrong. That’s why the backstop exists, and the EU refuses to let it be tampered with. It’s a compromise for both sides, to keep trade flowing freely and avoid undermining the peace process.

As foreign secretary, Johnson signed off on the principle of a backstop when it was originally agreed between the UK and EU in December 2017. He even praised the prime minister for her “determination” in getting a deal. It was seven months before he resigned over Theresa May’s “Chequers” proposal – the backstop topping his list of grievances.

Since then Johnson has referred to the backstop as a “monstrosity” and a “suicide vest around the British constitution”. He also led calls to “junk the backstop” when May’s deal was first published.

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Johnson has claimed he was initially “taken in” by promises the backstop was just a form of words. If that’s the case, it’s a classic example of him failing to be on top of the details. It’s so hard to pin down what Johnson wants, because there’s always the chance he doesn’t fully understand what he’s demanding.

His most recent position shift, put forward in a BBC interview and subsequent speech, is that he might be willing to get behind the government’s deal so long as there is a time limit and “UK-sized exit” on the backstop. This should be taken with a pinch of salt. Not least because Johnson used his Telegraph column last week to slam several aspects of May’s “appalling” deal which have nothing to do with the backstop: the “staggering” divorce payment and “humiliating” transition period.

What’s more, Johnson changes his preferred Brexit outcome on a regular basis. This week he will accept May’s deal with a time-limited backstop. Last month he insisted that “no deal” was what the public voted for. Before that there was the cake-and-eat-it “Super Canada” idea.

It is staggering that three years on the prime architect of Brexit still hasn’t got a clue what he wants. But, with the cliff edge looming in six weeks, the country can’t afford muddled thinking. Parliament needs to grapple with realities not fantasies. When MPs finally conclude there is no Brexit that matches the promises of 2016, the only sensible approach will be to ask the people whether they still want to quit the EU.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

3 Responses to “What on earth does Boris want on Brexit?”

  • Boris could face everybody down by having recourse to the royal prerogative of calling for a second referendum. After all. if the Queen through her Governor General, sacked the elected Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, because of a parliamentary crisis in 1975, the current debacle in Westminster exceeds the Australian precedent by far; would it not be appropriate for HM to intervene for a peoples vote and end Theresa May’s misery?

  • Very sensible suggestion which is unlikely to happen as nothing about this fiasco could be deemed sensible,indeed quite the reverse.