Now more than four years old, the Brexit process has surprised, astonished and confounded throughout its existence. So it seems fitting that, as it reaches its ignoble end, some of the more jaw-dropping moments should unfold. On 7 September, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis stood up in the House of Commons and said that the British government intends to “break international law in a very specific and limited way”. Once jaws had been picked up off the floor, Conservatives rushed to defend Lewis and stand by the government. Publicly, there has been a wall of support for the government’s proposed actions. Privately, however, there is disquiet. But the tale of how the UK even got to this point is perhaps even more incredible than Lewis’s words.
In January 2019, MPs absolutely threw out Theresa May’s Brexit deal, rejecting it by a margin of 432 to 202. May was unable to get her deal through the Commons, leading to her resignation on 24 May 2019. That October, as parliament prevented May’s successor Boris Johnson from following through on his threat of a No-Deal Brexit, the deal was hastily renegotiated, with the most controversial element being rewritten: the Irish Backstop.
Designed to keep an open border on the island of Ireland come what may, the Backstop meant that the UK would stay in the EU Customs Union and follow EU rules and regulations until such times as a trade deal could be ratified. This enraged Conservative Brexiteers who believed that the Backstop would turn the UK into a vassal entity of the EU. In October 2019, Boris Johnson renegotiated the Backstop so that it now applies to Northern Ireland only instead of the UK as a whole. In short: there is now an internal border within the UK.
In December, Johnson put this renegotiated, “oven-ready” deal to the people in a general election. The people overwhelmingly backed Johnson’s new deal, giving him a thumping majority of eighty. In January, the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified and signed off by both sides. The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. So what has changed in just eight months?
In short: the Brexit that the government is pursuing has gone from hard to diamond-hard. May always sought a “deep and special partnership” with Brussels; Johnson now simply wants to break all ties and only trade with the EU in a more general way. Part of this involves strengthening the trading bonds between the four nations of the UK – one of which is, of course, Northern Ireland. Enter: the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, known by the acronym UKIMB. The draft proposal of this law explicitly overrides the Irish Backstop as it will write into UK law that there cannot be customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Just as Brexit enters its final act, the government has thrown a plot twist into the mix.
Privately, however, many Conservative MPs are deeply uncomfortable with the UKIMB. MPs who are supportive of Brexit are included in this number. Interestingly, every living former Prime Minister, including Theresa May, who is still an MP, has spoken out against the UKIMB. But this number, including May, are not derailing the government. This is mostly because they believe that the government is using this bill as a tactic.
The UK is likely to reach only a bare-bones trade deal by the year’s end, if it does at all. Since the 2019 election, Johnson has often spoken of the fantastic, comprehensive UK-EU trade deal that was on the horizon. That fantastic, comprehensive trade deal is now about as likely as Nicola Sturgeon becoming pro-Brexit. If the government does reach a deal, it will fall short of what was promised.
In putting the UKIMB forward, these backbenchers believe, the government is trying to corral Brussels into agreeing a basic trade deal – and to make it easier to spin said deal to the British public. If the UKIMB falls in the House of Lords, as is likely, then the government can simply say that the elites have stifled the will of the people – again. If Westminster and Brussels do reach a basic trade deal, then the UKIMB can be pulled – and the government can take a victory lap whilst shouting that it forced the EU’s hand. The problems arise if the UKIMB accidentally passes and becomes law.
As things stand, the UK’s only major post-Brexit trade deal is with Japan. A UK-US trade deal is still the main prize. It was one of the main selling points of Brexit, in fact. The problem is that, despite the Special Relationship, the United States is actually more closely allied to Ireland, even though Trump is supportive of Brexit. Republicans and Democrats alike have made it clear that any UK-US trade deal that imperils the Good Friday Agreement will be struck down dead the second Trump seeks to ratify it.
The UKIMB imperils the Good Friday Agreement. If it passes, it will mean that a hard border will have to be put between the UK and Ireland in the increasingly likely event of a No-Deal Brexit on 31 December 2020. Not having a border is the cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement. The government is proposing to tear it to pieces.
There is also the fact that, after having seen the government violate the Withdrawal Agreement struck with the EU, other countries may well not trust the UK to negotiate in good faith.
But Johnson’s problems go far beyond trade and peace in Northern Ireland. He also has his party breathing down his neck. He may have only led the Conservatives for fourteen months, but as his popularity declines and his government performs U-turn after U-turn on all manner of issues, some Conservative MPs are looking for his replacement. The fact that Labour now has an excellent leader in Keir Starmer also does not help Johnson’s position. Starmer is more than capable of showing just how badly the government is handling both Brexit and the pandemic with only a few sentences.
Johnson needs a basic UK-EU trade deal to be able to showcase to the British public – and he needs to be able to make it look good. As things stand, it might well be his last hope. If he does not achieve that, and manages to imperil peace in Northern Ireland in the process of failing, then his downfall might well be as swift and as brutal as that of Margaret Thatcher some thirty years ago. The EU has been the downfall of every Conservative leader since Edward Heath. Boris Johnson need not think himself to be any different.