Sheila Lawlor is the Director of Politeia and the author of Now or Never: Countering the Coup Against Britain’s Democracy, from which the article below draws.
Boris Johnson, no novice to the craft of politics, kept his friends for the most part on side and his enemies guessing. He extracted a new deal from the EU that dropped the backstop and the UK’s subjugation to EU customs union law; sent, but did not sign, Parliament’s delay letter, and dealt with the duplicitous Letwin amendment to stop Brexit by his firm resolution to see the deal through into to law. MPs who refused to back it still don’t know whether that will lead to no deal or delay.
Much depends on the EU and its leaders, who have committed to Johnson’s vision. Fewer than 90 days after assuming office, he convinced enough of them that their way and his lay side by side, on – and even more important – beyond Brexit, turning enemy fortresses across Europe’s capitals into friendly citadels.
Previously, for the EU the Leave vote was a decision to be ignored, a problem to be circumvented by keeping the UK in and under the EU system. It had reasons of realpolitik – to show rebellious member states that the UK could not really leave, and that it would be punished for trying.
It also had pragmatic economic reasons: the UK economy must be bound and gagged, into and under EU law, its future path aligned to that law made in Brussels, to prevent a rival competitor on its shores. For France, particularly, Britain’s ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or competitive free market system is an upstart and potential rival to the Brussels (and French) model, of a protected, centrally planned and controlled, system that had gradually evolved in France from the time of Louis XIV and had been adapted for the EU project.
Johnson realised that Brussels, with its Franco-German axis, needed a political ‘win’, accepting such punitive elements in the May deal as: dispute resolution (e.g: citizens’ rights to be under ECJ jurisdiction), the UK divorce payment to the EU, the 13 months of transition under EU law with no UK vote or voice, all as the price of a new deal. But this deal is finite, a tidying-up exercise for exit – one that will, after the transition, leave the UK and its economy free.
The big prize will be that the UK’s economic and trade freedom will be restored, something May’s backstop would have prevented, potentially indefinitely. Instead, the UK economy will be under laws made by the UK, not EU law – ]Johnson’s ‘must’, set out in his first official letter as Prime Minister to Donald Tusk: when the UK left the EU, it would leave its single market and customs union,but remain committed to “world-class environment, product and labour standards, though UK laws would potentially diverge from the EU: That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy”.
The ball is now in the EU’s court. It can refuse an extension and focus on the future, to draw a line under the problem they have resolved with Johnson, as Emmanuel Macron, Leo Varadkar and others may be minded to do by vetoing delay. Or it may grant a delay, potentially linked to the dissolution of parliament for a general election. Either way, the ratification process has now been launched on the EU side.
Ultimately, as the EU’s leaders recognise, the momentum is with Johnson. It has been since he led the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, breaking with his Party’s leadership, to seize the opportunity to shape his and his country’s destiny, as the outsider, a leader in waiting.
He recognises that in this country the authority to make laws derives from the people under the UK’s constitution, the unwritten law that obliged monarchs and prime ministers over centuries, to respect people’s wishes or face the consequences and lose their hold on power. The MPs who have used the power, with which they were entrusted by the people to execute the referendum decision, in order to try to thwart it have broken that constitutional settlement.
Johnson understands, as Lloyd George, was reported to remark, that ‘at the top there are no friends’. That has helped him make his own way, use his own judgement, cautious, reflective, shrewd. Having taken with him some of the EU leaders who call the shots – Macron, Jean Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier and to some extent, Angela Merkel – he has found a Brexit that works for everyone, or almost everyone.
The DUP, unhappy with the à la carte proposals designed to satisfy the different parties on customs, VAT and consent, should take comfort in the constitutional reality: Northern Ireland is part of the UK and part of its customs union, a fact reflected in the deal. The practical arrangements to facilitate the smooth running of the all-island economy are just that, and will be subject to consent.
The Prime Minister has yet to deploy the armoury of tools in the executive cupboard in this see-saw for power between the executive and a legislature dominated by MPs determined to stop Brexit. He can choose from a plentiful stock of UK precedents, not to mention the provisions of international law. The country waits to see Brexit’s parliamentary opponents despatched. The EU has agreed to a deal that sets Britain free in December 2020. Labour’s leader may want to make a last ditch try to turn the deal’s economic freedom to servitude by championing a customs union at the eleventh hour.
But he may find less appetite for that in the EU than before, and less than unanimity for the hurdles a long delay could bring. Its leaders, like Johnson, belong to the school of politics in which there are neither eternal enmities nor friendships, only interests.