Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sunday 16 June 2019

defeated by brexit

Have we learned nothing?

  • The candidates for Tory leader have no plans for leaving the EU without serious problems
  • The central issues in the Brexit negotiations – notably the Irish border – remain unsolved
  • The leading candidate, Boris Johnson, also proposes to deprofessionalise the negotiating team

By Chris Cook

Brexit Britain still has the feel of 1790s France. Yesterday’s radicals are today’s sell-outs. People who fought the power have become the establishment. As realities undermine airy promises, members of the elite denounce old friends and resign their titles to become tribunes of the people.

The arguments have become cyclical. After years of fighting over detail, the arguments aired in the Conservative leadership battle have returned to the vagary of the 2016 referendum. As one French naval officer wrote in 1796: “Nobody has been corrected, no one has known to forget, nor yet to learn anything.”

What has changed since the referendum is that Tory MPs now have a stronger sense of which colleagues are true enemies – and the future is in their hands. They are currently selecting two candidates to be the next prime minister – a pairing whose names will be put to party members to choose from.

Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, at the launch of Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign

Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, is likely to win. His plan for Brexit is to rip up what has been agreed and start again. A new EU Withdrawal Agreement. It is unclear what he has learned from the past two years of talks – and the setbacks and successes they involved.

He wants to remove the so-called “backstop” – the clauses governing Britain’s relationship with Ireland. It is worth considering what this means and why it is problematic. The deal was shaped by forces that the May government fought against – and a Johnson one would, too.

He has not explained how he would deal with them.

First, remember Ireland is one of the 27 EU members. The Irish position, accepted across Europe, is that there can be no physical border or checks between themselves and Northern Ireland. The peace process was built on the EU eroding differences between North and South. It will not give up on that.

Second, the European Commission has been clear that “borderlessness” cannot be achieved simply by failing to enforce border rules properly. If there are tariff differences or regulatory divergences between Northern Ireland and Ireland, there will have to be proper checks.

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, with the EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Dublin and the Commission are united over the border issue

This is the Irish view too. They do not wish to be half-inside the EU, with off-standard British goods mixed in with EU ones. That could become a problem for them. As one Irish Brexit negotiator put it to me: “How will that look if we’re trying to sell our stuff in China? If we’re seen as potentially inferior?”

Those positions have shaped the whole process. If any divergence between North and South will trigger border checks and you cannot have border checks between North and South, then – hey presto! – you cannot have divergence between North and South. And Theresa May refused to countenance deviation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. So, to follow the logic, the whole of the UK must be bound to Ireland.

Johnson’s plan is, at root, that you can have a border on the island of Ireland – contrary to what Ireland wants. The UK will make it seamless and invisible by using technology. Let us be blunt. This means “by making it leaky” – contrary to what the EU and Ireland want. This idea has been ruled out, despite repeated attempts by the UK to sell it.

Another candidate, Sajid Javid, the home secretary, has proposed pledging “hundreds of millions” of pounds to fund a technological solution. But to suggest the Irish concern is that they do not want to pay for border technology is to miss the point. They do not want a clever border. They want no border.

Leadership candidates Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt differ over extending the 31 October deadline for leaving the EU

Another candidate is well known in Brussels. Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary, also wants to strip out the backstop. He believes that the European Commission fears him. This is certainly not the view of officials in London who worked alongside him during his brief tenure as a negotiator – nor in Brussels, nor Dublin. He was regarded as untrustworthy and seen to undermine his own objectives with ad hoc improvisations.

The weapon these three wish to wield to reopen the talks is a No Deal exit. Johnson has said that, by withholding the £39 billion agreed as the UK’s exit bill, he can apply pressure on the EU. They may end up using this weapon by accident. Johnson, Raab and Javid have all ruled out extending our EU membership beyond 31 October. There is no prospect of passing a renegotiated deal by then.

An idea in popular circulation is that a No Deal exit is impossible. Parliament “would not allow” it. A majority of MPs are against it, certainly. A prime minister who asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament to stop MPs intervening would also probably face a Commons that, one way or another, refused the order to prorogue.

But be careful. There is no easy route for the Commons to overrule the executive: it might take a vote of no confidence in the government – or for the Speaker to break the rules of the House of Commons to allow it to create new mechanisms. Avoiding No Deal will almost certainly require the EU to extend the UK’s membership once again.

Voters and campaigners in the European elections in west Belfast

What is clearer is that no other EU country would be as damaged by No Deal as Britain, not least since it is likely that a government that did get a No Deal exit over the line is likely to face a general election shortly afterwards. It is a lousy weapon – akin to putting ourselves under siege, and it is very plausible that the feet would be knocked out from under whichever prime minister embraced it.

Does the EU fear a No Deal exit? It is sensitive to the pain No Deal will do its members – especially Ireland. And it wants the deal to pass. That is why the EU has been willing to let Britain extend the negotiation period already.

But there is consensus among Irish voters in favour of holding a hard line. A poll in February found only 7 per cent of Irish voters supported shifting position to prevent No Deal. The EU also wants to hold its position. It is continuing to prepare for the worst.

A Johnson premiership, bluntly, is likely to harden this resolve. He is seen as a mini-Trump – and his faux-Edwardian shtick is unlikely to win hearts and minds in Ireland. This process has fallen into the middle of a string of resonant centenaries marking Ireland’s bloody war of liberation from actual Edwardians.

Brexit campaigners continue to make their voices heard outside the Houses of Parliament

Some of the other remaining candidates are willing to extend the negotiation period. Michael Gove, the environment secretary, for example. Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, too. Hunt is confident that Berlin can be sold on a new deal. Even if this were true, there is one complication in this approach: Berlin is the capital of Germany, not Ireland.

Rory Stewart is, in a sense, the candidate who has absorbed the reality of the talks most clearly: the Withdrawal Agreement is it. Vote for it, then we can move on. But there is a slight problem. He has not absorbed the reality of our politics.

He wants to pass this Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons with no embroidery. This is a fairly fundamental flaw. May tried it three times. Still, at least when it comes to the EU end, his plan is coherent and does not propose trying to smash Britain against its allies in the hope of a better deal.

Leadership contender Rory Stewart with an anti-Brexit campaigner. Stewart has failed to understand political realities

Maybe, of course, one of the candidates will try to build a majority in parliament for some deliverable outcome via a general election. Or the government will collapse, lose its majority and the UK will slump into a vote. If that ended in a clear majority in parliament, maybe a route out would emerge. But May also tried to fight a general election to win a clearer majority for her Brexit.

One lesson that Johnson has not learned is that this is a technical process that requires specialist knowledge. Last weekend he told The Sunday Times: “We will have a different attitude in the negotiating team and a different negotiating team…” This is taken to mean that he will get rid of the Europe Unit, the core of the negotiators led by Olly Robbins.

He went on: “I will be giving personal direction to the negotiations but we will also have a very strong and ministerially-led negotiating team.” It is worth noting three things.

First, the negotiation team under May was given personal direction by the prime minister. Indeed, May’s personal control of the talks was one of the things Brexiters used to complain about. It weakened May, in the end, by binding her to the mast of what officials came back with.

The European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. The EU is sensitive to the pain of No Deal

Second, one of the problems facing the UK in 2016 was lack of experience in the civil service. The number of people capable of leading the talks was vanishingly small. We now have an experienced cadre. The civil service must defend them and find a way to call on their knowledge.

Third, it is unclear what “ministerially led” means. But if Johnson intends to replace senior civil servants with ministers, it is almost certainly a proposal to replace people like Robbins with much stupider people – and ones with irrelevant skill sets, at that.

The civil service has been on a steep learning curve since 2016. One wishes the same could be said of our prospective prime ministers. After a grim lesson in what Brexit means, some have retreated to comforting old slogans. This revolution will eat more of its children.

Photography by Getty Images

Further reading

This piece is a postscript to our recent boxset of articles – a history of the negotiations – linked below.

The European Commission’s latest paper on life after No Deal is here.

The Northern Irish civil service has published a report on the same theme. It’s pretty grim. No Deal is a serious problem for NI.

The best book on Brexit is Kevin H. O’Rourke’s A Short History of BrexitIt has good potted explanations of everything. Tony Connelly’s Brexit and Ireland does a lot of the work, too.

An arcane thing to watch: Michael Gove has pledged to get rid of VAT, value added tax. If it is more than a slogan, this is potentially a big deal and could pose big problems for Ireland and our EU relationship.  VAT is, honestly, really interesting.