Tuesday 20 August 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Despite all his bravado and tough talk, Johnson has backed himself into a corner with his deadline - and the only way out is through a general election'

Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Boris Johnson is brimming over with vim and vigour about renegotiating with the European Union but that's a smokescreen - Brexit discussions are over.

He knew it before he walked through the door of 10 Downing Street. In his first speech as prime minister, he rolled out a stream of consciousness peppered with feelgood but essentially meaningless rhetoric, such as the "awesome foursome" of the union. While he spoke, the distant jeers of Remainers rumbled in the background.

Unite and revitalise the British people? He won't even manage that with his party. In any event, he has already shown his hand of cards. His sights are not set on revising the Withdrawal Agreement, whatever he claims to the contrary, but on calling a general election imminently. For that, he'll have to give six weeks' notice at least. Time is not on his side but an election is possible before the deadline just 96 days away.

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Let's consider his strategy. If he wins a majority, he'll have the parliamentary arithmetic to arrange for a soft Brexit. He can ram, engineer or manipulate some version of an orderly Brexit through the House of Commons. The DUP must expect to be cut loose from the confidence and supply deal, followed by a North of Ireland-only backstop agreed with the EU and passed by the Commons.

That's special status by another name, the North's ability to trade without restrictions with both the EU and Britain, and a darned good solution it is for the region from the perspective of prosperity. It's the only way Britain can have an agreed Brexit. But the DUP is resistant because the Border would move to the Irish Sea, undermining the union. The party forced Theresa May to turn down that offer when it was first made.

Make no mistake, a general election is bearing down the tracks, and it would almost count as pass-the-popcorn time if not for the fact that Ireland, and particularly the North of Ireland, has skin in the game. The new cabinet appointed by Mr Johnson is a general election cabinet.

It's crammed with hard Brexiteers - the moderates are gone - whose purpose is to support him at all costs and whichever version of Brexit he can cobble together.

The emergence of Dominic 'Take Back Control' Cummings as his senior special adviser is another example of election footing.

Hard not to foresee trouble of some description with this arch-disruptive force in the frame, a man who unleashed uncontrollable forces during the 2016 referendum.

Mr Cummings will act as a bridge to negotiate an electoral pact between hard Brexit Tories and the Brexit Party. The Tories have learned from the latter's recent electoral success and are conscious of the need to avoid fragmenting the vote.

Nigel Farage's Brexit Party will suck up seats in a number of Leave-voting Labour areas where nothing could tempt people to vote Conservative. Remain voters, however, will be divided between Labour and Lib-Dem candidates.

Mr Johnson mentioned both Ireland and the backstop in his first speech outside Downing Street, watched on the doorstep by Larry the resident cat, chief mouser under three premiers. (Prime ministers come, prime minsters go.) No one can be under any illusions about the latest incumbent. He does not mean what he says or say what he means. "Bin the backstop" is currently in his mouth but it doesn't mean he can keep the pledge or even that he imagines people believe him.

He ran twice for mayor of London on a ticket of opposing Heathrow expansion, famously pledging he would lie down in front of the bulldozers and stop a third runway being constructed.

When the bulldozers lined up, he'd arranged to be out of the country. Yet another signal of his intent lies in Mr Johnson's first speech to the Commons, which rang with the undertakings of an election manifesto.

Police recruitment was promised and preparations for Brexit emphasised. "We will prepare an economic package to boost British business and lengthen this country's lead as the number one destination in this continent for overseas investment," claimed Mr Johnson rather nonsensically, but it played well to the gallery.

Such a scenario will hinge on free trade deals and they require years of negotiation - the one with Mercosur, the South American trading bloc, took two decades while a recent Canadian agreement was 17 years in the making.

Currently, Mr Johnson faces the same parliamentary conundrum as Mrs May, despite acting as a squirt of air freshener in the stale Westminster oxygen. Behind his 'chin up, chaps' reinterpretation of the St Crispin's Day rhetoric in 'Henry V' ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"), he accepts there can be nothing new on the table from Europe. The EU doesn't relish a troublesome no-deal Brexit, as threatened by Britain, but it is even less keen on allowing the British premier to have his cake and eat it.

Other EU states might fancy a slice of something similar. Preserving the integrity of the EU27 trumps agreeing to a soft Brexit on harmful terms to the federation.

To recap. The backstop was proposed by the EU to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement, accepted by Mr Johnson as a cabinet member in Mrs May's government, and subsequently disowned because the DUP vetoed it. But consistency isn't particularly the DUP's strong point - checks are already carried out at ports in the North on certain imports from Britain so extending these inspections would hardly be disruptive.

Britain has advanced no credible alternative to the backstop. Mark Durkan characterised it best when he said people appeared to hope it was going to disappear up its own contradictions.

Meanwhile, Tánaiste Simon Coveney met the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith in Belfast yesterday. Nobody is sorry to see the back of Karen 'is-Belfast-in-Northern-Ireland-or- the-Republic' Bradley, but it is disconcerting to realise that Mr Smith's main function is to keep the DUP on board because of tight parliamentary numbers.

So much for the British administration's adherence to honest broker principles. Members of the new cabinet do not look like visionary politicians, although some may be efficient and others may be determined. They appear to be people bent on getting Brexit sorted, which is why they were chosen.

New Home Secretary Priti Patel, while optically a positive inclusion, is already notorious for suggesting Britain should threaten Ireland with food shortages to force us into line over the backstop.

Like Mrs May before him, Mr Johnson has reversed himself into a corner with a deadline, in his case October 31.

Perhaps he has an ace up his sleeve - a general election which will give him the necessary majority to deliver Brexit - and maybe he has hot air up it.

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Irish Independent

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