British prime minister's departure will rekindle hopes of a workable compromise to Brexit
IT is now only a matter of “when and how” – not “if” – Boris Johnson is going to exit as UK prime minister.
Ask formally in Dublin and Brussels and you’ll get the pat answer about never commenting about another country’s internal politics. But planning for “a post-Johnson world” has been going on for some time now amid the hope the man would be gone sooner rather than later.
Mr Johnson’s departure will rekindle hopes of a workable compromise fixing the awful Brexit crux. As things stand, the current EU-UK deadlock threatens everything from a trade war costing Irish jobs, to limiting Ireland’s access to the European Union’s single market of 450 million people again risking Irish jobs, to even the prospect of a return of the border in Ireland, which could even put Irish lives once more at risk.
Since May 10, when Boris Johnson acted upon his threats to unilaterally unwind Northern Ireland’s special post-Brexit trade status, the EU side has written off engaging in any real negotiations with London. Inside the past fortnight, two key figures who know about these things have frankly said “no progress can be made” on fixing the Brexit row as long as Boris Johnson remains on the political ropes as prime minister.
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Jonathan Powell, the former chief adviser to Tony Blair when the latter was prime minister, spoke about this Brexit row and how it affected on the fragile peace in the North. Each of these played a key role in delivering the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and they both have closely monitored the events since the British voters opted in June 2016 to quit the EU.
Mr Ahern, taoiseach from 1997 until 2008, told the Dublin-based International Institute of European Affairs he understood unionists’ fears about their British identity being impugned by checks on goods coming into the North from Britain.
But he suggested that while unionist fears can be assuaged this may not be enough.
“Their concerns are not insurmountable, and in some cases, not unreasonable,” he said. But he said that “as long as Boris Johnson remained in political trouble” it was likely this unionist change of heart would not be enough.
Mr Ahern said Boris Johnson was “clever and shrewd” and had shown the ability to succeed in his career. “But as a negotiator, I don’t think he has any interest in negotiations,” the former taoiseach added.
Mr Powell went a good deal further in a very interesting contribution to a hearing before an Oireachtas committee.
He said the biggest problem with the current deadlock was the “absence of trust”. He said the EU had been flexible so far in trying to find compromise and may have to show more flexibility, which was possible in real negotiations.
He said he did not believe trust and meaningful negotiations between the UK and EU were possible as long as Mr Johnson remained as prime minister.
“I may be wrong about that – but I don’t really think so,” Mr Powell said, adding that he hoped Mr Johnson would exit the job soon. “The truth of what is happening about the Northern Ireland Protocol has very little to do with Northern Ireland and a lot to do with the British Conservative Party,” he said.
“I know it sounds rather hopeless to say, ‘Wait for a new prime minister.’ But since I’m hoping that’s going to happen quite soon, if I were the Irish government and the European Commission, I would be preparing for negotiations post-Boris Johnson,” Mr Powell said.
Mr Powell said he thought a new Conservative leader – even a hardline Brexiteer pandering to anti-EU Tories – might well return to meaningful talks to reach a Brexit compromise.
“That is my hope and my belief – but I may be wrong,” he said.
This level of thinking is widely shared right across the EU. The reality is that the Covid-19 tailback, and fallout from war in Ukraine, has disguised the brutal reality that Brexit is doing serious economic damage in Britain right now. A course heading toward a trade conflict with Britain’s biggest and nearest trading partner is not in the interest of the British people.
A new face at the head of the London government offers scope to rekindle EU-UK trust, leading to meaningful negotiations on a real compromise on Northern Ireland and other issues.
None of this will be easy – and utterly nothing can be taken for granted.
But the departure of Boris Johnson from the prime minister’s office would be a very good start offering new hope on Brexit and Northern Ireland.