Two months ago, a senior Whitehall official told me that Boris Johnson did not understand the Northern Ireland protocol he signed last year to clinch a withdrawal agreement with the EU. I didn’t believe it; it sounded too good a story to be true.
Now I do believe it. I know it sounds incredible, and of course some things are so damaging that they will be denied by Downing Street. Yet it explains the prime minister’s extraordinary decision to take powers to override the protocol in an agreement he hailed as “fantastic” and “wonderful”.
It explains why Johnson told Northern Ireland business people they could put “in the bin” any customs declaration forms relating to trade with Great Britain. It explains why he said there would be a trade border in the Irish Sea “over my dead body”.
It explains the sheepish suggestion from Johnson allies that the full implications of the protocol to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland were unclear last year because the deal brokered by Johnson and his then Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar was inevitably rushed.
That might be the case, but it can't disguise the alarming truth: we have a PM who doesn’t do detail, and didn’t understand the small print of his own deal.
Yes, it’s complicated, but not that complicated. Johnson should have got it, because only two proposals for avoiding a hard Irish border were on the table: Theresa May’s Northern Ireland-only protocol, part of the deal over which Johnson resigned as foreign secretary, or a customs border in the Irish Sea, to which he signed up after succeeding her.
Now No 10 and Tory whips are frantically trying to head off a serious rebellion next Tuesday by Tory MPs appalled by his move to take powers to override the withdrawal agreement because using them would breach international law. Today, compromise is in the air at Westminster.
Although the government would probably have won next week’s vote, a repeat of Monday’s rebellion by 32 Tories would give the House of Lords the green light to oppose the Internal Market Bill. So it looks like Johnson will guarantee that MPs, rather than ministers, will have the final say before the controversial powers were used.
Even ministers admit the issue has been another unforced error. The “we’ll break the law” story ran before Downing Street had prepared the ground or explained why such a dramatic move was needed. The alleged justification – that the EU was threatening to block exports of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland – looked like an excuse cooked up after the event.
Johnson’s aim was to play hardball in the EU negotiations in the hope Brussels either made concessions or walked out in protest, so he could then blame it for the collapse.
But the EU is not playing ball. It is deliberately keeping calm and carrying on negotiating a trade deal. Officials tell me they will be “the grown-ups in the room,” which also tells us precisely what they think of Team Johnson.
Although the EU will probably begin legal action in the European Court of Justice over the UK ditching part of the withdrawal agreement, that would take months. Crucially, the EU is unlikely to suspend the trade talks in the meantime, as it doesn’t want to play into Johnson’s hands. “He is in a hole of his own making,” said one EU source.
A PM who picks fights at every opportunity has been rumbled. He sets traps for his enemies. But they know his game, spot the traps and avoid them.
Johnson adopts the same tactics towards Labour. Since Keir Starmer’s election in April, Team Johnson has been aching to portray him as a “Remainer lawyer” who tried to overturn the public’s 2016 vote for Brexit in a second referendum.
Johnson allies doubtless hoped a pledge to break international law would provoke howls of outrage from the former director of public prosecutions. But Starmer deliberately avoided the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions last week, just as he sidestepped the latest Brexit trap by calling on Johnson to finally get it done and stop “banging on” about it. “We are not playing his parlour games,” said one Labour figure.
Desperate to replay his greatest hit – Brexit – Johnson gave his game away in an email to Tory supporters, claiming Labour had “sided with the EU” by opposing the Bill on Monday. (Another reading of Labour’s stance is that it sided with international law).
Although the EU does not trust Johnson given his readiness to rip up his own agreement with it, Brussels officials believe he is quite capable of doing a last-minute deal after threatening no deal, just as he did last year. They suspect he would climb down and claim a great victory (again). Let’s just hope he reads the small print this time.
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