Not loyalism, but Johnson and the Tories

Banging same old drum

It has nothing to do with business in Northern Ireland, everything to do with keeping the Red Wall seats. James Harvey explores the politics behind Boris Johnson’s plans to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol

The announcement that the government is introducing legislation giving it powers to effectively scrap the Northern Ireland protocol has met with a predictable response.

For the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, the unilateral measure by the British government represented a “new low for the UK” and “legitimised the breaking of international law.”1 In similar vein the European Commission condemned the move and announced that it would be taking legal action against the UK to enforce the protocol, which is part of the negotiated withdrawal agreement between the British government and the European Union.2 This was combined with further, unspecified threats of sanctions and reports of a future trade war between the EU and the UK if the legislation was implemented and the protocol was actually scrapped.3

With claims and counter-claims all round, the row had all the familiar ingredients of the Brexit battles of yesteryear. While British ministers variously justified the new legislation as defending UK sovereignty, protecting the peace process and the Good Friday agreement, and ending trade and economic disruption between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, EU bodies and European governments strongly condemned the move as a unilateral abrogation of a legal agreement and an international treaty that the UK had signed as part of the Brexit process. For politicians and headline-writers it seemed to be a case of déjà vu.

The protocol has all but been out of the news since 2019, when it was negotiated to ensure that Boris Johnson got Brexit done in time to call an election and campaign on his success in bringing the long-running withdrawal agreement saga to a successful conclusion. Regular readers will know that in order to bring negotiations to a speedy conclusion the protocol left a number of rather contradictory loose ends concerning Northern Ireland’s economic status and relationship with the EU.4 To ensure that there was no hard border on ‘the island of Ireland’, as the diplomatic jargon has it, for certain aspects of the single market and customs arrangements, Northern Ireland, in effect, remained within the EU, thus establishing an economic border in the Irish Sea between the Six Counties and Great Britain.

Unionist politicians were incandescent about what they correctly regarded as Boris Johnson’s wilful sacrifice of their political interests and his bare-faced lies in pledging that there would be no Irish Sea border as part of a Brexit deal. However, despite Unionist campaigns and rallies against the protocol, and the collapse of devolved government in the Six Counties as a result of the withdrawal of the Democratic Unionist Party from the power-sharing executive in February of this year, the protocol remained in place. The elections to the Northern Ireland assembly in May added a further twist, with Sinn Féin displacing the DUP to become the largest single party and pro-protocol members of the legislative assembly now in the majority.5

However, whilst the Johnson government made no moves to amend the protocol throughout this period, it was kept alive by ministers as a possible problem and serious issue that might have to be dealt with ‘at some stage in the future’. Keeping the protocol as a handy weapon in the government’s back pocket, a useful addition to the potential causus belli with the EU, for use at a suitable juncture, made sound political sense for the Tories. Ministers such as Liz Truss and Jacob Rees-Mogg played the ‘orange card’ and repeated unionist arguments about the economic disruption caused by the protocol and the threat posed to ‘the peace process’ by loyalist opposition to the protocol and its ‘Irish Sea border’.

The main capitalist interests in the Six Counties have challenged these arguments about the economic impact of the protocol and have instead argued for compromise and minor modifications.6 In fact, despite the constant repetition of these lines, the anti-protocol unionists have been singularly unsuccessful in mobilising a militant campaign beyond a few stunts and poorly attended rallies, led by Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and the Brexiteer has-been and ex-Labour MP, Kate Hoey. The idea that the Six Counties stood on the brink of widespread violence was not made any more plausible by its endless reiteration by unionist opponents of the protocol or British ministers. So, when Boris Johnson said on June 13 that “our higher and our main international obligation is to the Belfast-Good Friday agreement, to the peace process in Northern Ireland, getting that Stormont assembly up and running”, he was following a well-established and calculated political strategy rather than responding to real threats.7

Brexit basics

If the dynamics of the institutionalised, communal politics of the Good Friday agreement provide the occasion and an ostensible reason for this latest turn in the policy of the Johnson government, the real explanations are to be found not in Belfast, nor Brussels for that matter, but lie much closer to home, in Westminster.

Last week’s confidence vote revealed the depth of opposition that Johnson faces amongst Tory MPs and the precarious position he faces within his own party. When combined with growing economic problems, the ‘cost-of-living crisis’, developing trade union militancy, probable by-election defeats at Wakefield and Honiton and Tiverton, and declining opinion poll ratings, last week’s alarums and excursions show that Johnson and his immediate supporters need a strategy to turn the tide and rebuild support both within and without the Tory Party. This was rather unsuccessfully attempted with Johnson’s somewhat muddled and incoherent Blackpool speech, which was supposed to be a reset of his government’s direction. Similarly, hints of tax cuts to come and promises of future economic growth were also meant to do the trick, but this time fell rather flat. The usual Johnsonian boosterism and rambling rhetoric was not working, so it was back to Brexit basics for Boris as he attempted to rekindle the spirit that had proved so effective in 2019.

The idea of refighting Brexit and rebuilding the electoral coalition that had demolished the Red Wall has long been floated in Tory circles. This strategy is based on a number of assumptions about Johnson’s personal appeal and ability as an electoral campaigner (which have been sorely tested in recent months). However, even with the lingering impact of Partygate and the widespread belief amongst MPs and Conservative members that Johnson has become a liability rather than an asset, Tory strategists close to him see Brexit as a political gift that still has the potential to keep on giving.

We saw hints of this in the opprobrium directed at one of Johnson’s leading Tory critics, Tobias Ellwood, when he suggested that Britain might rejoin the single market. Similarly, pro-Tory papers like The Daily Telegraph, Mail and Express have carried articles warning of how unspecified ‘remainers’ could plot to undermine both Johnson and Brexit. Using the language of a culture war against metropolitan elites, lefty lawyers, luvvies and out-of-touch Labour MPs, this wing of the Tories believe that both their internal and external opponents can be identified as wanting to thwart the popular will by undermining Brexit. Moreover, in rehearsing the referendum arguments about sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ directed against the EU and the European Court of Justice, the technicalities and legal niceties of the protocol can be simplified during a political campaign, in which defending Brexit is the centrepiece.

Whilst the likelihood is that a suitable compromise acceptable to both the UK and the EU over modifications to the protocol can be reached, a low-intensity pre-election campaign by the Tories to keep the issue to the fore has clear political advantages. Moreover, given his role in the shadow cabinet under Jeremy Corbyn, the identification of Sir Keir Starmer with the ‘remain’ cause has some considerable basis in reality and will be one that the Tories will be keen to exploit, as the election approaches - if Starmer remains Labour leader.

These sections of the Tory leadership are not the only ones who see the protocol and Brexit as political opportunities. Recent whispering against Starmer emanating from unreconstructed Blairites in the shadow cabinet and beyond, alongside the rather obvious manoeuvres from the would-be king over the water, David Miliband, show how they too might use the manufactured crisis over the protocol to suit their political strategy. Tony Blair’s attempts to shape Labour’s direction behind the scenes through vehicles such as the forthcoming Future of Britain conference might also point in this direction as well.

Whether these personal and political ambitions necessitate removing Starmer remains to be seen, but, whatever the outcome, for both the Tories and Labour, Brexit has not gone away and, through the political machinations surrounding the protocol, it is likely to remain centre-stage for the next few years.

  1. www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/brexit-boris-johnson-law-northern-ireland-break-b1005644.html.↩︎

  2. www.rte.ie/news/brexit/2022/0615/1304909-brexit-protocol.↩︎

  3. www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/may/17/eu-raises-spectre-trade-war-if-uk-rewrites-northern-ireland-protocol↩︎

  4. See, for example, ‘Back to the past again’ Weekly Worker October 21 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1368/back-to-the-past-again.↩︎

  5. www.newsletter.co.uk/news/politics/52-of-90-mlas-sign-letter-to-prime-minister-boris-johnson-rejecting-legislation-to-amend-northern-ireland-protocol-3730170.↩︎

  6. www.thejournal.ie/business-leaders-northern-ireland-protocol-richie-neal-5775735-May2022. This is a view shared by important sections of British capitalism as well - see www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/jun/13/cbi-warns-uk-government-over-northern-ireland-protocol.↩︎

  7. www.theguardian.com/politics/video/2022/jun/13/boris-johnson-says-plan-to-amend-northern-ireland-protocol-not-a-big-deal-video.↩︎