Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 24 December 2020



Boris Johnson yields to reality, but Brexit will come back to haunt Britain

By Europe correspondent Linton Besser

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Boris Johnson has confirmed a Brexit deal has been reached between the UK and EU (Photo: Reuters).

When Boris Johnson unveiled his transitional Brexit agreement with the European Union a year ago, he proclaimed it was a "great new deal" which "takes back control".

"We hold all the cards!" his minister Michael Gove declared.

Johnson had dislodged his predecessor Theresa May, sledging her pact with Brussels as an "absolute stinker", but it turned out he'd traded away even more.

His deal was forecast to dent UK growth by 6.7 per cent (May's would cost only 2.1), and for all the pugnacious talk of defending the UK's sovereignty, it abandoned Northern Ireland to EU customs rules.

Still, an election victory at his back, Johnson insisted, "we've got an oven-ready deal".

"We've just got to put it in at gas mark four, give it 20 minutes and Bob's your uncle."

Then the year slipped by, and every Brexit negotiating deadline passed with deafening silence.

Until September, when the Prime Minister changed his tune.

Suddenly, the EU's rights under the very deal he agreed were "absurd" and "extreme", and he introduced legislation to quash them, in what his government cheerily admitted was a breach of international law.

Just days ago, as the December 31 deadline loomed, Johnson laughed freely at the prospect of crashing out of Europe without any deal at all.

It would be "more than satisfactory", he said, promising Britain would "prosper mightily".

But the UK is in its deepest recession since records began.

And behind the scenes, the Prime Minister was issuing quite different orders to his negotiators. Britain now badly needed a deal.

Merry Brexmas

After a horror year, just think of the great PR victory that lay ahead.

On Christmas eve, his favoured red-top, The Sun, photoshopped him into a Santa suit holding a sack of goodies.

The coup was vintage Boris. For the paper's 3 million odd readers, December 25 was now "Brexmas".

And thus, the deal was unveiled. Gazumping a jointly timed press conference with Brussels, Johnson's staff bragged the agreement delivered "everything that the British public was promised during the 2016 referendum'.

This was a £668 billion bonanza, Johnson cheered.

"We've taken back control of our laws and our destiny!"

"That's the end of Brussels, now for the sprouts."

Fishy promises

But just as Johnson had ceded whatever was necessary to steam his way into Number 10, so, it now seems clear, he's done much of the same to get his trade deal and his tabloid applause.

At the Downing Street lectern he announced "there will be no palisade of tariffs on January 1st and there'll be no non-tariff barriers to trade. Instead, there will be a giant free trade zone."

In fact, the agreement does allow specifically allow the imposition of tariffs if Britain does not hew closely to Europe's famously tough environmental and labour standards: something Johnson and his Brexiteer boosters have long declared a red line.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen made it explicit in her press conference: "The EU rules and standards will be respected and we have effective tools to react if fair competition is distorted and impacts our trade."

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The president of European Commission says the Brexit deal is 'fair and balanced' (Photo: Reuters).

London yielded too on the sensitive issue of fishing rights.

European fleets can continue to plunder British waters for another five years.

The legal text is yet to be published, but silence from the Prime Minister also suggests the current customs duties frontier — which splits Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK — will remain in force.

JP Morgan's analysis was that the EU retained "nearly all of the advantages it derives from its trading relationship with the UK" but was now able "to use regulatory structures to cherry pick among the sectors where the UK had previously enjoyed advantages".

History repeating

Boris Johnson runs his hands through his hair
Boris Johnson will likely have little trouble passing the Brexit deal through parliament.(Reuters: Liam McBurney)

For now, with the Labour opposition promising to vote it up, Johnson will sail through the minor squalls of detail that will darken the Parliament between now and 2021.

But just wait and watch. The pattern will be repeated here, it can be almost guaranteed.

The Prime Minister will continue to trumpet the breakthrough for as long as it's advantageous to do so.

Then, in the not-too-distant future, when electoral profit beckons, he and his allies will find a way, whatever rhetorical contortions are required, to condemn the EU all the same.

The deal will be reprosecuted — perhaps by Johnson himself — in pursuit of another chance to wave a kipper at those pesky Europeans from up on a stage.

And that's because Europe has for decades been a very handy straw man for many in the establishment, not least Johnson himself, who paved a path to politics with wildly exaggerated newspaper columns pouring scorn on European cooperation.

He flicked the switch to Brexit only after some hard Conservative Party calculus, and he rode it all the way into the prime minister's bulletproof Jaguar.

It can be easy to forget that Johnson is made of the same stuff as Donald Trump.

He's urbane and smart, he likes to recite soliloquys in ancient Greek.

But the British Prime Minister is the ultimate weathercock.

He can sniff popular opinion and whirl about on his spindle, and it troubles him not a jot.

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