With the long-awaited election called, we can only admire how the Conservative party and its supporters in the mainstream media have closed ranks behind Boris Johnson and his deal. Not a single member of the ERG – the band of ‘hard’ Brexiteers who until only the other week were arguing we should leave on 31 October, deal or no deal, who castigated Mrs May’s withdrawal deal as an act of surrender, the worst deal in history – has spoken out against Boris’s reheated version of the same, i.e. the second worst deal in history.
Even Charles Moore, one of the last remaining voices of English conservatism in the Right-liberal media, and one of the wisest, has closed ranks. Writing only three weeks ago in the Telegraph (11 October), he noted that the almost exclusive concentration on the Irish border issue and the backstop in Boris’s discussions with the EU meant that ‘other objectionable aspects of the deal lie neglected by the British Government – the vast sum of money we have to pay up-front, our imprisonment (without voting rights) in the transition period, our subjection, seemingly in perpetuity, to the International Arbitration Panel and therefore to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice’. He concluded that ‘large numbers of MPs don’t care what is actually in any deal so long as we get one, a truly weird doctrine on which to base our future position in the world’.
Yet writing in the Telegraph one week later, on the eve of the vote to consider Boris’s deal, his tone had changed completely. Yes, there were serious defects. But the acceptance of Boris’s deal would ‘transform the political atmosphere’. The EU had accepted, at least ‘in principle’, at least according to the non-legally binding political declaration, that we should work toward a free trade agreement. With Boris’s deal, ‘We shall have success. After three years of deadlock, we shall have breakthrough. In the endless political contest between hope and fear, hope will have triumphed’.
Yet Martin Howe QC, chairman of ‘Lawyers for Britain’, whose forensic examination of May’s deal and its consequences played such a vital role in its extermination, and to whom many look for the definitive expert legal opinion on Boris’s treaty, tells a different story
On the positive side, writes Howe, Boris’s deal is a marked improvement on May’s atrocious deal. Most importantly, it gives the UK the right to walk away from the negotiations with ‘no deal’ at the end of the transition period – which gives the UK leverage it did not have under May’s surrender deal.
But on the negative side, it leaves ‘untouched’ the text of the withdrawal agreement negotiated ‘and serially capitulated’ by Mrs May, with the consequence (1) that the UK remains subject in the long term to rulings by the ECJ, (2) that we remain subject to EU law with no vote or veto during the transition period, (3) that our financial obligations to the EU are ‘unilaterally decided upon by the ECJ’ and ‘unconditionally payable, whether or not the EU offers the UK a satisfactory long term trade agreement’, and (4) that the revised Northern Ireland Protocol would impose ‘an EU-law based legal regime’ on Northern Ireland and create a trade barrier down the Irish Sea.
Howe concludes that Boris’s deal is still ‘a bad deal’. It lands us ‘unconditionally with huge financial obligations for nothing concrete in return, beyond the opportunity to negotiate a trade deal which we would be able to negotiate anyway’ along with long term ECJ jurisdiction. The no deal option, coupled with ‘short term bridging arrangements to keep trade flowing while talks take place’, is much preferable. Yet Boris’s deal may be ‘tolerable’ given the political circumstances, the danger of Brexit being derailed altogether, provided that a Johnson majority government is prepared to walk away if the terms of a free trade deal are judged unacceptable.
This leaves the electorate with a difficult choice. A vote for Boris is the safest bet for keeping Corbyn out. But do we trust Boris with Brexit? Boris’s ‘do or die’ talk, the brilliantly orchestrated campaign (well done Dominic Cummings) to convince the EU that Britain was ruled by a gang of desperados who would stop at nothing to get us out on 31 October, doubtless scared the EU into making concessions and offering us a ‘tolerable’ deal.
Politically, it is a triumphant vindication for Boris. But it comes at a cost. Like Mrs May, Boris knowingly and repeatedly lied to the British people. He sees no need to apologise. For old Etonians, tribal Tories and bourgeois liberals, lies and deceit are justified in politics. The means justify the end, whether the end is the future of the Tory party, their investment earnings, lucrative directorships, or our remaining in the EU. But for ordinary people, like you and me, lies rankle. It was telling that Farage, while recognising Boris’s political achievement in securing a deal, and the difficult parliamentary arithmetic, was nevertheless bothered that Boris had lied to the British people – and that he had refused to apologise. It somehow offended his sense of decency.
Moreover, we suspect that for Boris and his ilk, Brexit or ‘Global Britain’ is little more than an excuse to buttress their privileges and the value of their financial assets. Boris sees no downside to mass immigration – indeed there probably isn’t for those who reside in Oxfordshire manor houses surrounded by quaint English villages, whose culture and way of life seems secure (if beyond the reach of the masses), and who reap all the benefits of cheap labour without incurring any of the costs. And he seems correspondingly relaxed about Britain’s transition to a multicultural society, and all which that entails.
Moore, writing last week in The Spectator, noted that most Brexiteers were ‘positively pleased’ with Boris’s deal, and that all that remained was to pay off that pesky little Farage with a peerage (his party’s support was now reduced to a small core of diehards) and the path would be cleared for Conservative victory.
But who do we trust to ‘deliver’ Brexit? More importantly perhaps, who do we trust to save England? The modern Conservative party – or Farage and his one-man band? That is the question.
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