The Speaker
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 – 21:55

Boris recycling Theresa May’s Brexit deal

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

It is almost certain that Boris Johnson will be our next prime minister, yet despite the fact he will soon be the man taking up the mantle of leaving the EU, his strategy for doing so has been vague at best, with little to no substantive detail being presented.

Aside from broad stroke statements that we will leave – with or without a deal – by October 31st, he has said little of how he hopes to achieve it.

He has signalled throughout the leadership contest that he will seek to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, which given his seat firmly in the ERG camp, has become the dominant belief amongst political commentators. But with so little time between July 24th – the date that the new PM is expected to take up residence – and October 31st, any substantial renegotiation will be almost impossible.

Much to the annoyance of many Brexit voters and ERG members, it is unlikely that Boris will even attempt a renegotiation, instead being more likely to table the exact same withdrawal agreement as his predecessor Theresa May; possibly in early September.

Given Boris’ criticism of Theresa May’s agreement and his bluster that a revised agreement is ‘eminently feasible’, it is surprising that he would pass essentially the same deal, with nothing but minor tinkering around the edges.

But this is the only option Boris can, or indeed will pursue.

Boris’ vaunting over Brexit has led him down several false paths, stating in a campaign video that:
“You disaggregate the elements of the otherwise defunct Withdrawal Agreement . . . And then, of course, you solve the problem of free movement of goods across the Irish and Northern Irish and other borders to where they logically belong, and that is in the context of the Free Trade Agreement that we’ll negotiate in the implementation period, after we’ve come out on October 31.”

However, the implementation period would only exist with the passage of a withdrawal agreement, given that the legislation for this period exists only within the WA, as several parliamentary colleagues had to point out.

Johnson also tied himself up over the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, being forced to walk back a statement that we could ‘get a standstill’ on the current trade terms by unilaterally exercising article 24 of GATT. This forced several cabinet members, including Attorney General – and prominent Boris backer – Geoffrey Cox to correct the record that the same tariffs would be imposed on the UK as all non-EU nations should an agreement fail to pass.

All this has rather boxed Boris in – perhaps a situation he would relish given his hobby of turning boxes into buses – leaving him with only one clear way forward, a technical solution to the backstop and the same withdrawal agreement.

Given Brussels’ refusal to budge over the issue – continually reminding the UK government that there will be no more renegotiation – it seems all the more likely that he will simply recycle Theresa May’s deal.

Even in recent days, it appears that Boris Johnson is moving towards this. Whilst much of the focus remains on his strong rhetoric, ensuring that he gains the support of Tory members in what has become a race to the right, Boris has acknowledged that the technical solution may be the best option to resolving the backstop issue.

Over the last few days, Boris has cited ‘abundant technical fixes’ to the Irish border issue, suggesting that the rather minimal change is on the mind of the inbound prime minister.

The technical solutions largely revolve around using existing technologies to effectively check the goods and people crossing the existing border, closing the potential back door that would be created by a land border between the UK and European Union.

Mr Johnson has stated in recent days that: ‘There are plenty of checks that you can do away from the border if you had to do them without any kind of hard infrastructure at the Northern Ireland frontier’.

One of Boris’ biggest flaws is just how readable his emotions are, with his face telling you more about his policy ideas than his rhetoric.

In this case, by discussing the myriad technical solutions to the problem, he has let slip that he will simply seek to gain minor assurances regarding the backstop, before putting the same withdrawal agreement back to parliament for the fourth time.

Given Boris’ position in the party and favourable standing amongst the ERG wing of the party, it is likely that he could build the coalition of support necessary to pass the agreement, likely securing a successful path to exit shortly after parliament return from their summer recess.

At this point it would be likely that he calls a general election, hoping to capitalise on the inevitable poll bump that delivering Brexit will bring the conservative party.

This likely route though will no doubt disappoint many of his supporters, who have backed Boris for his hard-line rhetoric on the renegotiation and promise to really stick it to those European bureaucrats.

Could this cost him vital support amongst his base when he does inevitably look to gain a mandate from the general public?

Perhaps, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that Boris’ main approach to combating climate change will be to recycle. 

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