Ignore all the gushing hype, the incredulous gasps of admiration that Boris (Houdini) Johnson seems to have achieved the impossible and actually agreed with those die-in-the-ditch-intransigent Eurocrats withdrawal terms for the UK to leave the EU.
There’s only one question that matters. Is this actually Brexit, or is it Brexit in name only which will leave the UK still shackled to the EU? While I reserve final judgment until I’ve had the opportunity to study the small print, it looks horribly like the latter.
Johnson has failed to extricate himself from the trap I previously outlined here. Having identified the backstop alone as the problem with Theresa May’s withdrawal deal, he got it removed – two cheers, but an achievement which itself has been rejected as inadequate by the DUP.
But the backstop was not the only problem with the May deal. There were others, not least the legally binding Political Declaration which even without the backstop would trap the UK under continuing EU control.
Although the commitment in the Political Declaration to sign up to a customs union in a future trade deal has now been changed to “regulatory alignment”, the effect would still be to shackle the UK to EU regulations and other conditions. As a result, the UK would not be free to do the deals with other countries that it wanted in order to obtain the maximum benefit for Britain.
As the Telegraph reports:
However, the EU made clear in 2018 that any UK-EU Free Trade Deal that was ‘zero-tariff, zero-quota’ would have to accept the EU’s level-playing field rules – something which Mr Johnson is keen to resist, but has accepted in this document.The Bruges Group lists further alarming areas of convergence, including requiring “cooperation on… regulation of fisheries, in a non-discriminatory manner” (para 72), which is code for continuing the current arrangements for EU access to UK waters”.
Paragraph 21 says the two sides will engage in “deep regulatory and customs cooperation” that will be “underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition”.
These are set out in Section XIV (Para 77) and actually appear to expand on the May declaration, noting the “robust commitments to ensure a level playing field” needed in the light of the “geographic proximity and economic interdependence” of the UK and EU.
The document specifically notes the areas of “state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change, and relevant tax matters”.
It adds that the UK and the EU should keep a “robust and comprehensive framework for competition and state aid” and commit to “good governance in the area of taxation” and maintain “environmental, social and employment standards at the current high levels provided by the existing common standards”.
It also highlights what is arguably the most unacceptable provision of all, which is the loss of the UK’s independence over military policy. “The Treaty permanently restricts the UK’s sovereignty by preventing the UK from taking “any action likely to conflict with or impede” EU foreign policy (Article 129(6)). It is instructive that this contrasts with almost all the other sub-sections of Article 129 – each of which include language limiting them to the duration of the transition period. It is also very revealing in the Political Declaration that critical parts of the section on foreign policy and security are not reciprocal.”
No wonder the EU agreed to this.
It’s basically a tweaked version of the May deal, which MPs on both sides of the Brexit divide said was so bad it would leave Britain worse off than being in the EU.
We were told repeatedly that the May deal was indeed so terrible it could not be renegotiated. It was more dead even than Monty Python’s deceased parrot. Yet Boris Johnson has renegotiated that deal. He has indeed achieved the impossible. He has produced the May deal mark four. He has put lipstick on the dead parrot.
As of this morning, the Brexiteers are in a sorry and divided state. Nigel Farage has denounced this deal as “just not Brexit”. Some members of his Brexit party, however, reportedly disagree and are cheering Johnson’s achievement.
The Bruges Group and the Bow Group have come out against it. However, some members of the ERG “clean-break’ Brexiteers and even some of their even more principled “Spartans” were saying yesterday they were inclined to support the deal — although at that stage they can hardly have studied it in any detail.
As so often, however, detail may matter less than psychology and character. People are exhausted by three punishing years of the agonising Brexit national nervous breakdown. They just want to be shot of it. Even among the best of the Brexiteers this risks being the point at which, through sheer emotional and physical fatigue, some may persuade themselves that this deal is good enough.
After all, they’ve been telling themselves, there’s Boris throwing everything he has into delivering Brexit do-or-die, shackled by the Commons like the Incredible Hulk, sucking up potential Brexit Party voters and even Labour Brexiteers by his doughty defence of the sovereignty of the people against the perfidious Remainer coup against democracy – and now, just look, he’s actually wrung concessions out of the unwringable EU. What a guy, eh!!
So, they conclude, this is as good as it gets because you can’t get a more Brexity prime minister than Boris (really?) and the alternative to his deal is no deal, which means, given the implacable opposition of the Commons to that scenario, no Brexit.
But if the UK remains shackled to the EU, then what was all the agony of the last three years for? Because that wouldn’t be Brexit, other than in name only. And because as I have also said here previously, no Brexit is better than a bad deal.
This is the ultimate test of character for Brexiteer MPs. With faux-Brexiteer commentators shrieking how unbelievably stupid the Brexiteers would be to hold out against this as-good-as-it-gets deal, with Boris Johnson being hailed as a hero who has heaved off his shackles and with the electoral landscape so fractured and unpredictable, the crisis this weekend requires heroic courage, disciplined intellectual focus and backbones of steel.
Do enough of these MPs possess such sterling qualities? We’re about to find out.
Melanie Phillips is a British journalist, broadcaster and author - you can follow her work on her website HERE.