In my last post, I was a lonely outlier when I argued that we had nothing to lose by giving Boris Johnson a chance to see what he can deliver. I did so in full knowledge of his record and reputation. I am unrepentant. At least equally irritating as Boris is the solipsism that assumes Northern Ireland is centre of world attention and reduces outsiders like the prime minister to bit players in what Churchill called “the fearful integrity” of our quarrels. Moreover this standoff is different. Unlike all the others from 1998, it was wished on from outside. Most of the solution will have to come from outside too. For good or ill, Johnson has unique power and responsibility. While many may dream otherwise, he’s the only prime minister of the only government we’ve got. So there are good reasons for taking the gamble of investing in him while carefully monitoring his progress and accepting the risks.
In reaction to Liz Truss ‘s double barrelled statement calling for fresh negotiations with a backstop (that word again) threatening UK unilateral action just in case, the EU hit back hard, escalating their threat of reprisal to include the whole Brexit deal. This reflects the asymmetrical balance of power that so galls Brexiteers
So the big question for today is this : does BJ he really want a trade war with the EU?
Quite apart from the headwinds of Covid and now the Ukraine war, the independent Office of Budget Responsibility finds that Brexit has so far failed to deliver better alternatives to the EU relationship, Nor is it creating freedom from constraints that jolt Britain into greater prosperity.
To assess the UK’s economic performance in the fallout of Brexit, Investment Monitor examined the period following the EU referendum in the second quarter of 2016. Based on figures from the OECD, UK GDP grew by 14.3% between Q2 2016 and Q3 2021. This is a smaller growth rate than four of the EU’s largest economies. During the same period, Germany had the highest indexed growth rate at 32.2%, followed by Spain (25.6%), France (23%) and Italy (16.3%).
The UK-based Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) states that the long-term impact of Brexit will be worse for the UK economy than Covid-19. The OBR estimates that Brexit will reduce the UK’s potential GDP by 4% and the pandemic by a further 2%.
According to estimates from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the UK’s GDP grew by 0.9% in November 2021. This is the first time GDP has risen above the pre-pandemic level, increasing by 0.7% compared with February 2020.
Two commentators describe how the protocol can’t be isolated from the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement. Rafael Behr in the Guardian
One reason continental leaders don’t want to talk about changes amounting to a new treaty is their certain knowledge that the Tories would be dissatisfied again soon enough. Another reason is that a revised deal would involve trusting Boris Johnson, which EU governments have done before and which no one does twice.
One of Johnson’s complaints about an Irish Sea border, as expressed in an interview earlier this week, was that regulatory checks create “extra barriers to trade and burdens on business.” That generates “a great deal of faff and botheration”, which increases living costs. Those barriers are uniquely upsetting to Northern Ireland unionists on the level of national identity, but the faff and botheration incur costs also at Dover, Grimsby, Felixstowe; any place where goods move between Britain and the EU.
In other words, the prime minister’s economic rationale for wanting to fix the Northern Ireland protocol contains a complaint about conditions that are intrinsic to the Brexit model he chose. That is yet another reason why no one in Brussels wants to reopen the 2019 deal.
Martin Wolf of the FT shares much of this analysis but disagrees on the last point. It’s in the EU’s own interest to negotiate away the residue of Brexit, he says.
Ironically, our government, which treated the votes of 16.1mn Remainers with contempt when it chose almost the hardest and most damaging possible version of Brexit, wishes to give fewer than 350,000 unionist voters in Northern Ireland and a vastly smaller number of potential trouble makers the power to break the withdrawal agreement with the EU, even though this would damage the prospects of the rest of the country. “It is time”, Frost says, “to put our own interests first”. Indeed, we should. The interest of the British people lies in the best and most stable possible relations with the EU, our biggest trading partner and closest neighbour. It is not to risk a deeper decline in UK trade in response to threats of violence from a tiny minority of British people. The UK government must engage cooperatively in efforts to make trade with Northern Ireland smoother. But the EU should also engage, recognising that Brexit has been helping it to make far faster progress than it would have done if the UK had remained a member. Gratitude for removal of this obstacle should encourage it to be conciliatory.
Final judgement on the British proposal requires a grasp of detail I lack; but on the face of it, particular proposals seem promising, including red and green channels and trusted trader schemes. Two huge stumbling blocks are in the way. One is the perverse idea of accompanying sincere negotiations with the threat of unilateral action of doubtful legality. The other is the UK’s claim already conceded in principle by the EU, to be the sole real time monitor of the new arrangements however transparently they do so. This is where trust is crucial. If you want be trusted you don’t threaten. It seems elementary.
Having spent over a year with David Frost as an aggressive negotiator, the threat of independent legal action appears to up the British ante. Not a single observer outside the Daily Telegraph believes it’s a good idea. Most likely there is an element of bluff from both sides’ position born of deep mutual frustration. But neither is yet impaled on a hook like the DUP. Draft legislation can always be delayed or even dropped if the going is good.
Getting a legal backstop through Parliament could take a year at least. If passed it could face a Supreme Court challenge. That is time the DUP can ill afford. Month by month their fortunes will be reflected in remorseless polling. The bleak local debate around the stand –off such as it is, is passive aggressive and self regarding. Like Mr Micawber, the DUP is reduced to hoping something will turn up.
Insisting on sitting it out, the DUP have no choice but to leave it to Boris Johnson. If they were given a fig leaf they would discover considerable support for practical mitigation in the Assembly . On the theme of the slippery slope to a united Ireland the DUP and Jim Allister have yet to absorb the fact that the GFA they now so fervently champion declares we are British, Irish or both. It is a perfectly acceptable position for unionists , like settling for deputy first minister.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London