Zombie parliament staggers on
Will Boris Johnson win over the DUP and ERG? Eddie Ford looks at the latest Brexit developments.
Brexit gets more confounding with each week that goes by. Last week the picture seemed relatively clear. Boris Johnson’s negotiations with the European Union were not remotely serious: rather they were all about - apart from aligning with Donald Trump’s United States - fighting the next general election and mopping up the Brexit Party vote. Hence the famous text to the editor of the Spectator magazine - presumably by Dominic Cummings - saying that the “main effect” of the Benn Act “will probably be to help us win an election by uniting the ‘leave’ vote and then a no-deal Brexit”. OK, Dom, got the strategy.
But now, with the possibility of some sort of deal with the EU dangling before us, things look different again and almost anything could happen by the end of the week. What appears to be happening is that Boris Johnson is essentially recycling (albeit with some tiny tweaks and variations) Theresa May’s previous idea of a ‘customs partnership’ - which at the time was described by the European Research Group, Democratic Unionist Party and Boris Johnson as “crazy”, “mad”, “cretinous”, etc.
Strangely enough, they are not quite so forthcoming this time round about ‘Theresa May mark two’ - though that could change rapidly, of course. However, as things stand, for the time being we are unclear about what position they will take on the prime minister’s new turn. Jacob Rees-Mogg says we should “trust” Boris Johnson - why anyone should do that remains a mystery. But, from what we can gather so far, Northern Ireland is being hung out to dry as part of Johnson’s determination to strike an EU deal before the special session of parliament on Saturday October 19 (‘super-Saturday’). This is the fateful day when, if he has not got a deal with the EU, a humbled Johnson has to write a letter to Brussels requesting an extension, as per the stipulations of the Benn Act - something he pledged never to do. He would prefer to “die in a ditch”, we were told - Brexit “do or die”. On the same day purportedly one million people will be marching in support of the People’s Vote demand for another referendum.
Anyhow, true, with Johnson’s plan Northern Ireland would remain under British sovereignty. But to all intents and purposes it will stay in the EU’s custom union - with Brussels deciding the regulations, tariffs and so on, which would then be administered by the British government in the statelet. Obviously, this creates a border down the Irish Sea - something that no British prime minister could ever agree to, if we were to believe Theresa May. This logically leads to two incompatibles. One is the Good Friday agreement, which the establishment on both sides of the sea thinks has to be protected at almost any cost, and the other is leaving the EU in any real sense. Effectively, Boris Johnson is throwing overboard the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
What exactly is going to happen under this plan, in which Northern Ireland will have a kind of joint membership of both the UK and EU customs unions after Brexit? Imagine that the UK does a trade deal with the US, leading to a reduction in tariffs. Presumably it will apply to Northern Ireland too - except that there you will have to fill in a lot more forms, scotching the daft idea that leaving the EU will lead to a ‘bonfire of red tape’.
In reality the proposed system to avoid customs and tariff checks is complicated and the EU is doubtful that it actually could work in practice, especially as it is supposed to be up and ready following the transition period at the end of 2020. More to the point, it clearly has the potential to endanger the EU single market - a key issue being whether goods due to remain in the north can be stopped from ‘leaking’ into the Republic and onwards to continental Europe, creating a bonanza for fraudsters and smugglers. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has given the example of sugar entering Northern Ireland from Britain on a lower tariff, but then being sold on as part of a fizzy drink to the Republic - plausibly arguing that the technology could not possibly be in place to prevent this happening by the beginning of 2021.
Will Boris Johnson’s plan be politically acceptable to the DUP? You have to assume that the Tory whips have done their calculations and usual arm-twisting, but they cannot be absolutely certain of the numbers or which way the DUP will jump. The party has yet to take an official position on the plan, but the mood music seems negative - with Nigel Dodds, its leader in the Commons, seeming particularly antipathetic. Late on October 15, a DUP spokesman said “it would be fair to indicate gaps remain and further work is required”. The DUP is arguing that removing what was seen as its own veto over the arrangements - perhaps instead requiring a simple majority in the assembly - would breach the Belfast agreement which has to include the principle of “cross-community consent”.
Unsurprisingly, the Ulster Unionist Party has come out strongly against Johnson’s proposals, as they would put Northern Ireland in a different economic position from the rest of the UK, and therefore in a different constitutional position - which is obviously true. Jim Nicholson, the former MP for Newry and Armagh, said it would represent a “fundamental assault upon our position within the United Kingdom”.
The last deal between the Tories and the DUP involved bribe money of many millions in the shape of spending in the Six Counties. Perhaps the same will happen again - the Irish Times has reported the offer of “a multimillion-euro package of investment funded by the EU, London and Dublin”. Responding to the rumours, an angry DUP spokesperson said it was “categorically untrue and utter nonsense” - but you could be forgiven for thinking that they were protesting too much.
On the other hand, Steve Baker of the ERG emerged from a meeting in No10 a few days ago saying he was “optimistic that it is possible to reach a tolerable deal that I am able to vote for” - the grouping normally taking its lead from the DUP. But there appear to be major divisions opening up within the ERG, a headline in The Sun proclaiming, “Deal breaker: Boris Johnson’s fledgling Brexit deal causes major split among Tory hardliners” (October 15). The article states that, while some senior ERG members are “ready to back” the prime minister dual-tariff system, others are “speaking out to blast it”. Former cabinet minister Owen Patterson is quoted as saying it would “shatter” the Good Friday agreement and “completely undermine” Northern Ireland’s status as an “integral part” of the UK. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith was said to have “exploded” at senior No10 officials over how the prime minister has kept almost everyone in the dark over the negotiation.
Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach, has strongly suggested that there will have to be another EU summit at the end of this month, because “many issues” have yet to be resolved - no way can it all be done before the two-day summit starting on October 17. Then again, “two senior EU sources” the day before were reported by The Guardian and others as saying the central stumbling block to a deal has been eliminated, because the DUP had apparently accepted the latest proposals on “consent”. Everything is up in the air.
If Johnson does not secure a deal over the next few days, whether because of continued objections from the EU or DUP - more likely the latter - then ‘super-Saturday’ will probably be cancelled, as there would be nothing to debate or vote on. But on the assumption for now that ‘super-Saturday’ does go ahead, expect Boris Johnson to triumphantly hold aloft a piece of paper saying he has done a great deal with the EU - one, of course, which is totally different to Theresa May’s “crazy” deal. When it comes to the Labour Party, at least according to Keir Starmer this week, they would push for a second ‘confirmatory’ referendum on any deal tabled by Boris Johnson and would do everything in their power to avoid a ‘no deal’. This means that the 19 Labour MPs who wrote to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, saying they want to see the referendum result honoured “without further delay”, are now coming under intense pressure from party whips and colleagues not to help Johnson get a deal across the line - something many believe would allow him to enter a general election having defused the threat from the Brexit Party and in a strong position to form a viable parliamentary majority.
We are now in completely uncharted territory, with renewed talk of a government of national unity - but there has been an interesting development. For the first time Jeremy Corbyn is saying he will accept somebody other than himself as caretaker prime minister - the name of John Bercow, the speaker, has cropped up as the person to come to the rescue.1 It is hard to see the Liberal Democrats objecting too much to the idea - if they really want to stop Brexit, then that is the sort of thing they have to do. How else do you do it? Bercow would be perfectly acceptable to the liberal Tories who defied the whip, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, Change UK and now the leader of the Labour Party. All things being equal, those numbers would add up to a majority and a government that would write the letter and extend article 50 - perhaps also going for a second referendum before calling a general election.
However, the opposition is of necessity incoherent - it opposes Johnson and ‘no deal’, but apart from that it agrees on hardly anything. Johnson knows all this perfectly well, of course, so the game is far from over. Just keep raising the stakes. In some respects, the real question over the next few days is probably not about a deal getting passed or not. Rather, it is whether Boris Johnson decides his best interests are served by bringing a deal to parliament in the knowledge that is unlikely to get approval. That would enable him to go to the country, having ‘succeeded’ in negotiating a new deal and obeying the letter of the law vis-à-vis the Benn Act - or he could abandon the talks and then blame his opponents in parliament for the failure. A difficult calculation to make.
This zombie parliament could stagger on for quite a while yet.