Boris Johnson should accept the compromise the EU is offering – but he wants to keep Brexit going

If the prime minister was being honest a fractious relationship with Europe serves his script – even if the EU is being pushed to its ‘outer limits’

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 13 October 2021 20:40
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Lord Frost accuses EU of using Northern Ireland to try to reverse referendum result

The proposals from the European Commission to reform the Northern Ireland protocol go further than expected. They are designed to be practical measures to ease the everyday problems in the province, rather than as a string of concessions to the UK.

The ideas, to be unveiled by Maros Sefcovic, the commission’s vice-president, include a green lane for goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland without many of the current customs or plant and animal checks, which should allow the free flow of medicines and food (sausages included) and a red lane for products destined for Ireland and the continent.

The measures answer many of the criticisms the UK has made about the way the EU has implemented the protocol. “We have gone to the outer limits of what member states, particularly France, will wear,” one Brussels source told me. “These proposals are a sensible basis for further discussion, not a take-it-or-leave offer.”

They are within the framework of the current agreement and do not amount to the “new protocol” demanded by David Frost, the Brexit minister. Frost should not reject the EU’s conciliatory move out of hand if he is serious about finding a compromise. But he is bound to express disappointment that the EU will not remove the European Court of Justice’s role overseeing the protocol. No surprise there: officials say this is “a matter of EU law” because Northern Ireland remains in the single market.

The justified suspicion in Brussels is that Frost is talking up the ECJ issue as a “diversion” and to give the UK cover to use Article 16 to suspend parts of the protocol – probably next month, after a few weeks of negotiations. The ECJ’s remit might worry Northern Ireland's unionist parties as they try to outbid each other before next May’s elections but the EU is right to conclude that people in the province are more concerned with practical rather than theoretical matters.

Nor is it a surprise the EU is reluctant to replace a deal that took effect only in January. When Frost argued the protocol was “drawn up in extreme haste in a time of great uncertainty”, it sounded like Theresa May was responsible. But it was Johnson who signed the agreement in 2019. Perhaps he should have a word with his chief negotiator at the time – some bloke called David Frost. Dominic Cummings, then Johnson’s closest adviser, now argues that the prime minister did not understand the protocol, as I have written previously. Cummings said “we wriggled through with the best option we could and intended to get [Johnson] to ditch the bits we didn’t like after whacking Corbyn”. He denies this means Johnson lied to voters at the 2019 election, though many people will surely now conclude his “oven-ready deal” was not ready at all.

In his speech, Frost dangled the “prize” of “a new era of relations” between the UK and EU if the “poison” of the protocol can be drawn, including the cooperation on defence and foreign policy many EU states want. But does Johnson really want a positive relationship with the UK’s neighbours and natural allies? I doubt it.

I was surprised by Frost’s claim that “there is no electoral dividend in endlessly talking about Brexit - quite the reverse”. But that is precisely what Johnson did at last week’s Tory conference as he drew his new post-Brexit dividing line with Labour between wage rises and immigration.

If Johnson was being honest, the successor to “get Brexit done” would be “keep Brexit alive” (until the next general election). Why wouldn’t he want to? He wants to remind voters in the red wall he delivered Brexit and show some positive benefits from it. A fractious relationship with the EU serves this script.

Labour is on the defensive and doesn’t really want to talk about Brexit or immigration because of its red wall problem. Keir Starmer’s promise to “make Brexit work” is a step in the right direction but only a toe in the water.

However, Johnson’s short-term gain might yet bring him long-term pain – the very opposite of how he describes the transition to a high wage, high skilled, high productivity post-Brexit economy. He has inadvertently taken ownership of supply chain problems (partly caused by Brexit) as part of his new mantra. So it will be much harder for him to get away with his usual “blame somebody else” act as delays and shortages persist.

Meanwhile, many workers will find their pay rises outstripped by inflation, which ministers privately fear will hit 6 per cent by the end of the year – above the Bank of England’s 4 per cent forecast. Although wages are officially rising by 6 per cent, the figure drops to 4 per cent when the bounce back after the furlough scheme and short-time working in the pandemic are taken out.

“Keeping Brexit alive” might not prove as beneficial to him as Johnson thinks.

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