Wednesday 21 August 2019

Michael Kelly: 'Johnson could claim victory and unite his party by accepting a backstop that only applies to the North'

Pragmatic: But this has tended only to serve one end – Boris. Photo: REUTERS
Pragmatic: But this has tended only to serve one end – Boris. Photo: REUTERS
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

Theresa May was only the latest victim in the civil war over Europe that has been tearing Britain's Conservative Party apart for decades. John Major famously used the 'b' word to describe his anti-EU cabinet colleagues and David Cameron only agreed to the referendum on EU membership to pacify the same instinct on his backbenches ahead of an election that he feared would see the rise of Ukip.

But things are different now.

The rebels are now inside the tent and have finally succeeded in securing control of the party and installing one of their own as leader.

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This will be a double-edged sword for the Eurosceptics. On the one hand, their man has ascended to the highest office in the land and taken control of Britain's destiny, banishing virtually all dissenting voices from the Cabinet. But, on the other, the 'Britain First' wing of the Tories has made a virtue out of sniping from the sidelines for years. This has allowed them to paint a scenario where they had all of the answers and none of the power. Now they have the power, we'll see if they do in fact have all the answers. Be careful what you wish for.

Boris Johnson is an interesting character. I can't quite muster up the hatred for him that makes his opponents foam at the mouth, but his reckless streak is certainly cause for concern.

All week, we've had various commentators asking which version of Boris are we going to get as prime minister? Is it the effective mayor of London who, by building a broad coalition of talented people around him, managed to win a solid Labour city for the Tories? Or, is it the bumbling foreign secretary who could write the diplomatic handbook on how to lose friends and alienate people?

Friends of Mr Johnson explain that he is a natural leader. This, they claim, is why he couldn't master the art of C abinet collective responsibility as Mrs May's foreign secretary. As prime minister, they argue, he'll be top dog and just as during his mayoralty, he will shine as prime minister. Time will tell.

It's just 97 days until the Halloween deadline that Mr Johnson has set for Britain to leave the EU with or without a deal. Few people expect that this is enough time to renegotiate anything meaningful with the EU and get all the necessary enabling legislation through the House of Commons, even if he can manage a majority vote for any new deal.

Mrs May was bedevilled by her so-called 'red lines' on Brexit. What are Mr Johnson's red lines? Well, to be honest, he doesn't exactly seem to do red lines. This is the man, after all, who wrote two equally passionate op-ed pieces, one in favour of Brexit, one against. Initially, he was against Mrs May's deal, then for it, then against it again.

He is pragmatic to be sure, but the pragmatism has to this point tended to serve only one end: Boris. But Mr Johnson must surely now know that the one thing that will bring his premiership to a quick end will be a failure to deliver Brexit. So if he wants to succeed, he'll have to be creative. One way he could be creative around this would be to accept a backstop that only applies to the North.

This Northern Ireland-specific backstop would obviously require customs and regulatory checks between Britain and the North if it came into force. But crucially it would give the North an unparalleled advantage for economic growth - and God knows the region needs a shot in the arm and a move away from dependency on government jobs.

This would enrage the DUP, of course, but the votes lost by a characteristic 'no' from the DUP could be more than made up for from the Labour benches. The DUP strop aside, it would allow Mr Johnson to claim victory with minimal political risk.

Survey after survey shows that Britons - particularly those most enthusiastic about leaving the EU - are really not that bothered about the union with Northern Ireland. A poll in April revealed that only a third of people in England and Wales wanted the North to stay in the UK, a similar survey among Tory members found that 59pc would give up the North if it meant delivering Brexit. The string of hapless MPs appointed as secretary of state in the North in recent years shows that the region is really not a priority in Whitehall. Mrs May's disastrous 2017 election catapulted the DUP into pole position and the Tories have feigned interest in unionism ever since.

Boris could also claim a delivered Brexit as an overdue victory and unite the Tories around their common enemy, Jeremy Corbyn. Most Labour MPs are petrified at the prospect of an election. There was a notable hush from the Labour benches on Wednesday when Mr Corbyn called for an election.

Truth be told, Boris would be on fairly safe ground if he dumped the DUP in favour of a backstop that only applied to the North.

He can sleep pretty sound in the knowledge that he's unlikely to lose safe seats in the shires because the Tory faithful pine for what Mr Johnson's hero Winston Churchill described as the "dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone".

Michael Kelly is editor of 'The Irish Catholic' newspaper

Irish Independent

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