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Welcome to the Looking-Glass

October 17th, 2019

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.” 

Has Humpty (oops, sorry, the PM) gone and done it? Has he actually got Britain a deal to Brexit before 31 October? Well, it appears he has. Hooray! Let the church bells ring out. Boris is a genius. All those nay-sayers who said he couldn’t do it should hang their heads in shame. Of course, some of us predicted just this – here, for instance. The EU are playing their allotted part to perfection with Barnier saying that the backstop has gone.  Mind you, the bridge to NI has yet to be promised. Perhaps that will be the rabbit miraculously produced out of Boris’s hat just in time for Saturday’s debate – Ta Dah! – to get those sulky children in the DUP on board.

There are two debates going on in Britain over Brexit: one is about the facts, what the proposed deal  actually says and means. No-one cares about such dreary pedantic matters in a post-truth world. (Or maybe only wordy lawyers.) The other – and far more important – politically anyway – debate is about the appearance of things.

How does this make Boris, the Tories, the Tory rebels, the Brexit Party, Labour and the rest of the opposition look – and in that order?

  • Well, it makes him look very good indeed. The Leaver who could do what Mrs May could not and in just a few weeks. Even the EU are complimenting him.
  • It positions the Tories well for any GE – “we are doing what we promised and on time“.
  • The Tory rebels now need to decide whether they really want to stop a No Deal exit even at the cost of making Boris look like a winner.
  • The Brexit party – its leader now wanting an extension – looks churlishly idiotic.
  • Labour face the prospect of opposing what they claim to want and a GE they could well lose and lose badly.
  • And as for the poor Lib Dems: they have had their Revoke Article 50 policy nullified overnight.

There is the small matter of whether Parliament will actually vote for this new deal but this is a mere detail. If it doesn’t, Boris has another villain to tilt against. His A-G can repeat his You’re all an absolute shower act, though perhaps a little less stridently this time, eh Geoffrey? Magnanimity in victory and all that.

But let’s just for one brief moment be a little dreary and pedantic. What does this new deal mean?

When is a backstop not a backstop?  The backstop has gone. Yes – for the the UK. But not for NI. NI will formally remain within the UK Customs area but in practice will follow EU rules on customs and VAT and the Single Market. The backstop is no longer something which comes into play if an FTA is not agreed. It is now policy for NI from Day One – and likely to be permanent because of the consent provisions.

Taking Back Control?  It is the EU which will determine what customs checks there need to be in relation to goods being moved between the EU, NI and the rest of the UK.

NI as an integral part of the UK.  Not anymore. There will now be an effective border down the Irish Sea between NI and the rest of the UK in relation to trade, in consequence of the agreements reached about how customs and VAT rules will apply. It’s not annexation. No, no. Just the sort of tight hug you can’t easily extract yourself from.

No jurisdiction for the ECJ.  Not quite. It will be the ECJ which will have jurisdiction over this NI Protocol and Britain will have access to the court in exactly the same way as any other EU member state. And then there is the role the ECJ will play in relation to any future EU-Britain FTA.

Consent.  The agreement is quite clever in relation to this. A majority of NI’s representatives have to consent if any change is to be made to this arrangement.  Nota bene – not a majority of each community but a bare majority. This removes the DUP’s veto. Given that the other parties (critically, Sinn Fein) are Remain parties it is vanishingly unlikely that there will ever be consent for this arrangement to cease. NI will be in a privileged position where it gets the benefits of both the EU and the UK. Not an unfair outcome given that the province voted to Remain – and certainly a more democratic one than in the May deal. But given that the DUP’s strength has come from its ability to say “No” this considerably weakens its USP, as its statement today has recognised.

Scotland.  It will be furious. It too voted Remain but the absence of that crucial land border with the EU has not given it or whichever EU state it could have bordered the necessary leverage. Perhaps the Scots Guards could quickly invade Mont St Michel.

The Political Declaration.  Clause 77  is the crucial one: a level playing field in the areas of tax competition, state aid, environmental, social and employment standards. It is not legally binding so a future government (and the EU) could ignore this but then it would be much less likely to get an acceptable FTA – one acceptable to both Britain and the EU. Betting against the EU in future trade negotiations does not, based on the experience of the last 3 years, seem wise.

The rest of the UK.  Well, it does not get the backstop but it also loses its access to the Single Market without having to pay for it and without having to comply with one of its key pillars: Freedom of Movement. The one big advantage of Mrs May’s deal was that it provided an incentive to the EU to agree an FTA with Britain on reasonable terms in order to avoid triggering the backstop. That incentive is no longer there. The EU will undoubtedly want an FTA, as will Britain.  But the EU’s relative advantage has been improved vis-à-vis Britain. The price that Britain will pay in future in order to say “no backstop” now will be higher than it might otherwise have been. In making such a fuss about the backstop (and the date) Britain signalled to the EU exactly where its weak spots were. And the EU has used them. It has appeared to concede on the backstop (by shifting it while allowing the PM to say it has gone) while in reality getting everything that mattered to it from the previous deal – and then some.

Pah: reality! Who cares? The race is on to see if this deal can be nailed down before people have a chance to understand its implications in detail, before enough MPs ask why a deal which, on one reading is worse than Mrs May’s deal containing provisions the PM has previously described as unacceptable, should be agreed. Boris must hope that speed and urgency will help him come to a resolution. (Insert your own joke here about his personal life.)

The genius of Boris is to turn a genuine question about Britain’s relationship with the EU and the terms on which it departs solely into a question about what is good for him and the party he leads. By that standard, this deal is a triumph. Whether it will be any good for the people who voted Leave in the hope that Brexit would, in the end, make life for better for them and their families and for those hoping for an intelligent thoughtful approach to Britain’s future relationship with the EU, who can say.

Roll on Saturday. I’m still hoping for that Garden Bridge across the Irish Sea.

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