Thursday, November 26, 2020
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Boris’s deal – triumph or travesty?

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BORIS Johnson has done what many said was impossible and wrested from the EU a change to the Withdrawal Agreement, as well as to the Political Declaration. It has been received by many as a diplomatic and negotiating triumph for a Prime Minister in office for only 85 days, managing to reopen the WA, to water down regulatory alignment and abolish the backstop.

But was it really? How could the EU not have accepted it, the sceptic is bound to ask? How could they look such a gift horse in the mouth, with the bar already set so low by Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement? And when in most respects it differs little from its thrice-rejected forebear?

Jeremy Warner sets out serious misgivings despite the heroic headline, ‘This is nothing like Theresa May’s vassal deal’, awarded his article by the Telegraph:

‘It fails to give much comfort over the exact nature of Britain’s future political and economic relationship with the European Union. In this regard it merely prolongs the uncertainty rather than ends it. What is more, it leaves the transition period unchanged, which means that there is little more than a year left to hammer out the Free Trade Agreement, with zero tariffs and quotas, that the UK Government aspires to.’

He goes on: ‘Commitment to maintain “a level playing field” across a wide range of fields, from the environment to state aid, competition, social and employment standards and ominously, “relevant tax matters”, suggests a degree of continued alignment with EU rules and purposes. It is also left unclear as to who would adjudicate in disputes – our own courts or the European Court of Justice. In any case, there is zero chance of all this being agreed in a year absent of the UK conceding ground to the EU on multiple fronts. At this stage, the political declaration is essentially a fudge. It decides virtually nothing.’

What no one is arguing about is that Mr Johnson has ‘torn up’ only one section of the Withdrawal Agreement, and that there is only one area of significant change to it, the removal of the Northern Ireland backstop. The rest of the 599 pages are left pretty much intact.

That said, the backstop that would have locked the UK into an indefinite Customs Union has now been escaped. Though the ‘frontstop’ designed to replace it has failed to assuage the DUP. The new agreement brokered between the UK Government and the EU effectively puts a border down the Irish Sea and treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. The DUP remain opposed, reportedly because it gives Sinn Fein too much power over the continuation of the arrangement in Northern Ireland. Despite the inclusion of a democratic consent requirement of the Northern Ireland Assembly province they believe it still undermines the integrity of the United Kingdom.

Nigel Farage and Richard Tice have clearly stated their opposition to it, though not all the Brexit Party appear to agree. The Bruges and Bow groups have condemned it in a joint statement.

Sherelle Jacobs of the Telegraph in a three-part Twitter thread warns of the horrors in the closet yet to be revealed:

Continuing their political posturing, Labour oppose it as worse than Theresa May’s deal. 

Can Mr Johnson claim anything else for it? Well, a small reduction in the divorce bill from £39billion to £33billion and a possibly shorter transition period, potentially ending as soon as January 2021. But both of these ‘pluses’ are disputed. It is feared by many that once again fishing will be hung out to dry. 

The inescapable fact is that 95 per cent of the ‘new’ deal is the same, leading to criticism that it is no more than a cosmetically enhanced pig, a fear also expressed by Melanie Phillips. 

Yet it has won early support from some hard-core Leavers such as Leave.EU and Lance Forman MEP, who appear to share the belief that a minimum necessary Brexit has been achieved.

A snap poll suggests that Leave voters agree – they support the deal by 2 to 1, maybe in the hope that this will be the end of it, though that does leave a sizeable minority of Leave voters unhappy with it.

Boris is taking it to a special session of Parliament today to see if it can win the backing of MPs in a vote that, without the support of Labour and the DUP, looks set to be very close. It will come down to how many ERGers, ex-Tories and Labour MPs in Leave seats can be persuaded to back it. 

The government has tabled two motions, one for the deal and one for no deal, but says it will move only the one it thinks it is most likely to win. In theory, either of these motions being passed would satisfy the requirements of the Benn Act and allow the government to avoid sending a letter requesting an extension, though the motion could be amended in ways which change that. What these amendments might be is not yet clear – there was talk of a second referendum, but that appears to have been killed off for feared lack of support.

What if neither motion passes? Then the Benn Act kicks in and before the end of the day the Prime Minister must send the extension letter, as Stephen Barclay has confirmed.

What then? On Thursday Jean-Claude Juncker ruled out an extension, which would mean a no-deal exit on 31 October regardless of the Benn Act or any other Parliamentary shenanigans short of full-on revocation. Donald Tusk swiftly countered that, saying it was up to the EU27 to make that call. 

Besides which, the EU can always change their mind to suit the circumstances – until this week they had insisted the WA could not be reopened. Juncker’s statement could be merely tactical, to bump MPs into backing the deal.

So MPs could gamble that the EU would offer an extension in the end. Then it would be down to any loopholes the government has found in the Surrender Act and what the courts will say about that. 

By the end of today we’ll have a much clearer idea of where things stand – whether the Commons has supported the deal (or no deal) and, if not, whether the government has sent the extension letter. What we won’t know is how the EU will respond to an extension request and, if it comes, how the government will respond to the offer.

Boris’s success in removing the backstop will certainly have done him favours with the electorate, and he has shown that he really was trying to get a deal and that if we don’t leave by the end of the month it is not because he didn’t try. He has yet to show how far he is willing to push things to leave without a deal, and having insisted that there are loopholes he is unlikely to be rewarded if he is seen to fold when the moment arrives.

Will it be enough to secure him a majority in the General Election – whenever Labour deign to grant voters a say? Or will the horrors that still lurk within the pimped up banger that now bears his name come back to bite him?

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Will Jones
Dr Will Jones is a maths graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present (Grove, 2017).He blogs at https://faith-and-politics.com/

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