Comment

Johnson runs into Brexit's hard choices

Philip Stephens / May 2021

Photo: Shutterstock

 

Every now and then, against all my emotional instincts, I ask myself whether it is time to come to terms with the recent past. Britain has left the European Union. Boris Johnson's mendacity cannot be undone. Michael Gove is no longer embarrassed by his solemn pledges that the government would hold "all the cards" in post-Brexit negotiations with Brussels. To borrow the ghastly American phrase, maybe I should aim for "closure".

The impulse always passes. Whether by heavenly design or fiendish accident, Lord David Frost, Johnson's Brexit bag carrier somehow chooses these moments of personal doubt to share his own thoughts on "Global Britain". Shot through with a mix of nationalist bombast and a menace that derives from palpable inadequacy, his dissertations are a reminder that Brexit was an act of self-harm we will have to live with for a generation.

Frost's worldview, if you could call it that, starts from the premise that the EU still wants "to do us down". Outside as well as inside the Union, the UK is the victim of a dastardly plot. If Brexit turns out to be a failure it will be the foreigner's fault.

Visiting Northern Ireland the other day, he issued what was intended as a warning to the European Commission's negotiators. The EU's position in the dispute about checks on Northern Ireland's trade with the rest of the UK, he declared, was unsustainable. A border in the Irish Sea, though set down in the withdrawal agreement, jeopardised the fragile political balance between unionism and nationalist established by the Belfast peace agreement.

Brexit, of course, rather than the Irish protocol is responsible for destabilising Northern Ireland. Frost's tactics are as transparent as they are dangerous. If the Commission holds Johnson to the protocol, the UK will blame Brussels for any upsurge in unionist violence. Yet if the arrangements are so bad, why did the prime minister sign up to them?

Frost's rather eccentric answer is that the border should not be called a "border". It should be referred to as "a boundary for trade purposes". The problem, Johnson will discover, cannot be wished away by rhetorical sleight of hand. Even if one puts aside the legitimate interests of the EU27 in safeguarding the single market and those of the Republic of Ireland in protecting the peace, It is hard to imagine that Joe Biden's US administration is impressed by such chicanery. Biden, whose ancestors hailed from Co Mayo, has a dog in this fight.

Northern Ireland is not the only hard choice. Johnson's government is struggling to articulate what the UK has actually gained from severing ties with its neighbours. Downing Street, Frost told a committee of MPs the other day, has now set up a shiny new committee to explore the economic opportunities thrown up by Brexit. An outside "expert" will oversee the work. So there you have it: five years after the most serious rupture in British foreign policy since 1945 and the government is still casting around to decide why it was a good idea.

Until a few weeks ago, the Brexiters might have united around the claim that the project was about recovering the buccaneering spirit of the first Elizabethan age by promoting free trade. By breaking free of the single market, Britain could strike its own deals with economic partners in fast growing regions of the world. The argument always badly underestimated the losses that would accrue from leaving the single market, but at least it seemed to have a certain internal logic.

This, however, was before the cabinet saw the terms of the agreement under negotiation with Australia. This is an important deal - the first that represents more than a roll-over of the terms Britain enjoyed as a member of the EU, an entry point into the Trans Pacific Partnership, and a likely template for agreements with bigger nations such as the US and Canada. It has come as a shock then for many in the cabinet to discover that free trade carries costs as well as benefits.

Australia, understandably, is seeking an eventual move to tariff and quota-free access for its agricultural products. British farmers are protesting that this will wipe out farmers in higher cost domestic beef and lamb production. Hill farmers in Scotland would be particularly affected, handing more ammunition to the Scottish National Party's independence campaign. Several of Johnson's colleagues, including the afore-mentioned Gove, have understandably got cold feet. No-one, it seems, told them that free trade throws up losers.

The prime minister insists he will press ahead, albeit softening the blow with a long transition period before tariffs are removed. But the problem will not go away. The US and Canada farm sectors represent a much bigger threat. Sure, consumers would benefit but the protests of the farmers will drown out any applause from supermarket shoppers.

All this, of course, was at once predictable and predicted. The Brexiteers - in essence English nationalists - were not interested. And now, like Frost, they will blame the EU. At some point, the shared economic, political and security interests that tie Britain to its neighbours will reassert themselves. But not with Johnson's administration.

 

Philip Stephens

Philip Stephens

May 2021

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