Friday 23 July 2021

The Frost-Johnson approach has already failed

For over a year now the Johnson government’s response to Covid and its handling of Brexit have not just occurred in parallel but have exhibited numerous parallels. This week’s ‘freedom day’ fiasco is the latest example, with its blind insistence on meeting an arbitrary pre-set date having echoes of, amongst other things, the mulish obstinacy about not extending the transition period. Similarly, Brexiter MP Graham Brady writing about how willingness to wear masks shows “how far a proud nation has allowed itself to fall” is a reminder that windy rhetoric and bogus patriotism are amongst the common threads linking lockdown scepticism and Brexity outrage.

Brady, for those who have forgotten, gave his name to an amendment which was one of the most surreal moments of the Brexit saga, and of course the constant pressure from such doltish backbenchers is another common factor in both Brexit and Covid policies. Not that Boris Johnson needs to be pressured into incompetence; one might say that it is his factory setting. In relation to both Brexit and Covid, he seems to have simply decided it is all too difficult and boring, and can’t even be bothered to engage with either of them in any meaningful way. So Covid policy has been sub-contracted to individuals and organizations to cope with as best they can, whilst Brexit has been sub-contracted to the lamentably over-promoted David Frost.

It is now two years since Johnson became Prime Minister, and they have been remarkable for all the wrong reasons. “Seldom has a rich, sophisticated Western nation fallen so far, so fast” as during his tenure, as Martin Fletcher put it this week. Annette Dittert’s critique, now published in English is even more excoriating in its forensic analysis of “the politics of lies” he has presided over. Whilst it’s true this has had little impact on his support in the opinion polls, it continues to have a huge impact on events since reality is a harsher judge than the electorate, and the price it extracts for endless lying is merciless.

With Covid, that price can be measured in lives lost and blighted. But it is equally clear in relation to Brexit and, in particular, the escalating disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). These are rooted in years of sickening dishonesty, going back to Johnson’s pre-referendum claim that Brexit had no implications for the Irish border, through all the years of denial about what the implications were (of which the Brady amendment was just one episode), leading to the lies told about what had actually been agreed in the NIP.

Frost’s incoherent dogma: a brief review

It’s important to keep remembering this history in the face of the now endemic gaslighting about what has led to the current situation. For months now the government has been developing a narrative about the NIP which has culminated in the supposedly new proposals put forward in parliament by Frost and Brandon Lewis this week.

That narrative has two core propositions. These, perhaps unsurprisingly, manage to be risible within their own terms whilst also being inconsistent with each other. One is that the government only agreed the NIP because of the circumstances of the ‘remainer parliament’. The other is that the realities of what the NIP means have only emerged during the attempt to implement it.

The first is risible because at the time the NIP was proclaimed as a great triumph, and part of Johnson’s ‘oven-ready deal’. The second is risible because the NIP contained significant detail of what implementation meant and its implications were largely obvious at the time. And the two are inconsistent because the first implies that the problems were always known whilst the second denies they were ever envisaged.

But the shape-shifting sophistry of Brexit isn’t concerned with consistency or logic. Nor is it seemingly much concerned with pride, since the first claim entails that Johnson and Frost were dishonest, whilst the second requires that they were incompetent. In any case, the reason for both claims is the same: to insist that the EU should allow the UK to renege on what was agreed. For what Frost made crystal clear this week is that the UK wants to rewrite almost the entirety of the NIP.

Within this narrative, a recurrent sub-theme is the childish complaint (given that it relates to a legal agreement) that the EU is adopting a “purist” approach, supposedly evidenced by the fact that such a high proportion – perhaps 20% - of all EU border checks are occurring on the GB>NI border. But there are several reasons for that, principally, as outlined by RTE’s Tony Connelly on his latest blog, that nowhere else do you have a situation where organizational supply chains (especially those of supermarkets) so extensively straddle the borders of the single market. To that I would add the fact that, because this is also a border inside the UK single market, there is a far higher percentage of mixed goods consignments (‘groupage’) than would normally occur on the EU single market border. So it’s true that this is an unprecedented situation, but it is one created by Brexit and agreed by the government.

None of this is an unexpected result of the NIP. It was obvious it would be a consequence of an Irish Sea border, just as it was obvious there would be considerable diversion of goods trade from GB>NI to Ireland>NI to avoid these barriers (the opposite may well occur with respect to services trade). This is important to note because Frost is shaping up to make ‘unexpected diversion of trade’ central to any attempt to invoke Article 16 (temporary suspension) of the NIP.

Similarly, it is nonsense to pretend that the unhappiness of unionists with the Irish Sea border is some surprising new consideration. The objections of the DUP were known in 2019 and deliberately, even brutally, over-ridden. It’s even more indefensible to now argue that the NIP violates the principle of consent in the Good Friday Agreement. Apart from the fact that if it were true the time to realise it was before signing, the entirety of Brexit is being done without the consent of Northern Ireland, where it did not have majority support.

Not only are all these claims bogus, they are also irrelevant. Even if it were true that the government agreed the NIP unwillingly, because of the nature of the 2017-19 parliament, it remains the case that it signed up to it as part of an international treaty. Would Brexiters accept it if the EU were now to say that it had agreed only because of its internal politics and wanted to be let off its commitments now? Equally, even if it were true that the consequences are unexpected, the principle of pacta sunt servanda means that the UK (like the EU) is bound by the agreements it makes.

But, of course, neither of these things is true. The NIP happened because Johnson wanted to proclaim he had ‘done the deal’ and ‘got rid of the hated backstop’ so that Britain could have no further delays to reaching, ahem, ‘freedom day’ from the EU. On this basis he won the 2019 election and rammed the legislation through parliament, with almost no discussion, prior to signing the deal. Yet within literally weeks of doing so he and Frost were discovered to be working on plans to circumvent the provisions of the NIP (£), long before any implementation had even occurred and therefore before any ‘unexpected’ consequences could have arisen.

Once more around the Mobius Strip

None of this would be guessed from this week’s government proposals. Without even a hint of contrition for his prior decisions – he, after all, negotiated the NIP - Frost now shamelessly recycles various versions of ideas that were repeatedly discussed and rejected prior to the 2019 agreement. These include a revival of the ‘honesty box’ idea in place of customs checks, a Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary (SPS) ‘dual regulatory’ system, and the removal of the ECJ’s role in governance. These suggestions are not explained in any great detail, but in many ways they quite closely resemble the proposals made in October 2019, and rejected by the EU, before Johnson’s ‘walk in the park’ with Leo Varadkar.

In other words, as per my recent blog post, the government continues to go around the same Mobius Strip of trying to square contradictory demands. It would be embarrassing were Frost capable of embarrassment, so he leaves that to the rest of us. The irreducible core, explicitly stated in the new document (paragraph 4) is that the government, like all the Brexiter ideologues (£), does not in fact accept the need for the NIP at all. It comes close to an open admission of what is abundantly obvious: Johnson signed up to the NIP in bad faith.

This makes the kind of high-trust solutions envisaged by Frost even less realistic than when they were first proposed. For the UK has now squandered all trust, not least by attempting to renege on the NIP which was itself a trust-based approach in that the EU accepted that a third country (i.e. the UK) would manage the single market border.

That said, there are two aspects of the UK’s approach which do show some kind of realism. One is that, despite claiming (highly dubiously) that the grounds for triggering Article 16 already exist the government says it will not, at least for now, do so. The other is that although the proposal amounts to a wholesale re-write of the NIP Frost is careful to avoid talking of scrapping it. Both of these presumably reflect a realisation of the perils of provoking significant reaction from the EU, whether legal or economic. In addition, especially as regards the latter, as was pointedly made clear a few hours before Frost’s statement, the Biden administration expects the UK and the EU to stay within “existing mechanisms” in their discussions, meaning the NIP. The UK is at least adhering to the letter of that.

Even so, what Frost did this week marks a major escalation, and an unnecessary one. For we know there is a way out of many of the problems, in the form of SPS regulatory alignment, which Frost refuses even to countenance as it means ‘compromising sovereignty’. Without going all over the arguments about that idea of sovereignty, and simply taking it at face value, the central point, I think, is this: Brexit was the UK’s policy, and the ‘hard’ form it took was chosen by the UK government.

So if ‘compromise’ is what is needed because of the politics of Northern Ireland then it is the UK which should compromise. To my mind, it really is as simple as that although, again to my mind, far from compromising the UK’s interests it would be very much to our advantage – not just for Northern Ireland but for GB-EU trade (a rarely mentioned point is that all the disruptive barriers to GB-NI trade which Brexiters deem intolerable also apply to GB>EU trade which the Brexiters like to claim has barely been affected). The obstacle to a solution is the ‘purism’ of Frost’s Brexiter dogmatism.

An open goal for Labour

This is actually becoming an increasingly open goal for Labour, if they have the courage and insight to make use of it. Recent comments from Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves, Emily Thornberry, and this week even, to an extent, Lisa Nandy, have suggested this might be in prospect. And Louise Haigh, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, made a robust response to this week’s NIP proposals. But there needs to be a bolder and more co-ordinated post-Brexit policy offering, which would be both differentiated from government policy and notably better for British jobs, consumers and businesses. Yes, there are risks for Labour, but there will always be risks in defining policy as, for that matter, there are risks in not defining policy. Indeed at the moment it is the latter which is Starmer’s biggest problem: voters don’t know what his Labour Party stands for.

This post-Brexit policy could be badged ‘a better deal for Britain’ in deference to the (supposed) sensibilities of ‘red wall’ voters, and would certainly be a more viable one than the recent ‘Buy British’ plan. It would start from addressing the NIP, on both economic and security grounds, and widen out to include a plan to negotiate a mobility chapter of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to benefit Britain’s services and cultural industries, as well as proposals to deepen the security aspects of the TCA. After all, the TCA will be up for review in 2026 anyway, so will be a key issue following the next election.

Of course everyone knows that Johnson would splutter about Labour not having accepted Brexit. But that currency has a diminishing value not least, ironically, because of Johnson’s own insistence that he ‘got Brexit done’. Beyond that, very few voters know or care about the intricacies of SPS regulations – for example, the differences between ‘equivalence’ and ‘alignment’ are certainly not doorstep issues. On the other hand, shortage of lorry drivers, which is to a considerable extent linked to Brexit, and resultant empty shelves in shops (£), is, literally, a bread-and-butter issue. On mobility, the heat that immigration had as an issue in 2016 has largely dissipated (only 2% of voters think it is the most important issue facing the UK today), and greater international security cooperation is probably popular and certainly relatively uncontroversial.

Moreover, the pandemic, with all the challenges it has brought and is bringing, means the terrain of politics has shifted. Why add to all the other woes by insisting on ‘sovereignty’ at all costs? A very potent line for Starmer would be that we need to stop harking back to all the old Brexit debates which, after all, are exactly what Frost is resurrecting not just in relation to sovereignty but in trying to re-write the NIP.

But if Johnson really does want to keep revisiting the ‘will of the people’ then he will be on very tricky ground. The very hard-line approach he and Frost are taking is a long way from the Brexit that was promised in 2016 and it is absurd to think that it commands anything like the level of support that Brexit itself still has. Indeed according to the most recent opinion polls, of those who support staying outside the EU, about a third favour a closer relationship than at present, and it seems a fair assumption that all or most of those who support rejoining the EU would agree with that. As with the wider post-Brexit culture wars, discussed in last week’s post, it’s important not to fall for the populists’ rhetoric that they speak for ‘the people’.

The possibility of pragmatism

So a pragmatic ‘better deal for Britain’ policy would be acceptable and perhaps welcome to many who voted leave, whilst being a long overdue acknowledgment of the concerns of those who voted remain, a group which, of course, includes the majority of habitual Labour voters. But it’s not just that such a policy would be good tactics for Labour: it would also be self-evidently good for the country, and in ways that go even deeper than Brexit itself.

It's perfectly sensible, for all sorts of reasons, that it is not Labour policy to rejoin the EU, and instead to say that Brexit is a reality. But the question is what kind of reality. A ‘better deal for Britain’ policy could speak to the overwhelming public sense that Brexit has not gone very well (only 5% think it has),  whether people think that was inherent to it or was simply down to the way it was done. Central to moving forward is to break the cycle of endless lies which, as this week’s events show, still blights the government’s approach to Brexit. The wider import of that is the way that Johnson’s entire approach to government is based on a pathological, incontinent dishonesty across every policy area. Until that gets definitively called out – even if, as Labour MP Dawn Butler found this week, the arcane rules of Parliament forbid it being done there - as the basic, defining problem of his government nothing will improve, whether in relation to Covid, Brexit or anything else.

As for the immediate term, it is clear that Frost, with his adolescent idea of what ‘tough negotiating’ consists of, is hell-bent on provoking a crisis in UK-EU relations, and this week’s document confirms that. Things will probably go quiet for the next few weeks, as the holiday season kicks in and whilst the grace periods remain in force. It is possible that the EU will agree a further extension of those periods, as requested by Frost, to forestall an immediate crisis when they are due to lapse at the end of September. However, if reports are correct, the EU is not going to accede to his request to “freeze” the legal action underway against the UK for its unilateral breaches of the NIP. Instead, the next stage of the action will be undertaken by the end of this month. More generally, as Maros Sefcovic’s initial reaction implies, it is inconceivable that the EU will accept the bulk of Frost’s latest proposals, as the government must surely know, and certainly won’t re-negotiate the protocol.

So matters will come to a head in the autumn. That will be the moment for Labour to stake out a different approach – if it is ever going to – and, with that, to begin to lay to rest some of the ghosts of its own Brexit divisions. Much more importantly it could be the beginning of a much-needed re-set of UK-EU relations which has many aspects other than the NIP – the emerging row over Gibraltar being an important example - all of which are being poisoned by the Frost-Johnson approach to the NIP. For, if nothing else, it is clear that their approach leads nowhere. It’s not that it is going to fail. It’s that its very existence, two years after they negotiated the NIP, is evidence that it has already failed.


My book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) was published by Biteback on 23 June 2021. It can be ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book. For reviews, podcasts etc. see this page.

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