Editorial – The Guardian
The Guardian view on the dash for a deal
For Boris Johnson, 31 October is a sacred date, beyond which Britain must not still be a member of the EU. But before 31 October, there was 12 April, and 29 March before that. The approach of a Brexit deadline in confusion and crisis is a sadly familiar feeling.
The urgency driving Mr Johnson to strike a last-minute deal in Brussels is a function of political bungling. Time is short because the prime minister squandered it with dangerous games, flirting with no deal and posturing to core supporters. But fear of humiliation in being compelled by law to seek an article 50 extension has focused his mind. He abandoned a convoluted multi-border plan for Northern Ireland in favour of a more realistic approach, closer to options discussed (and rejected) when Theresa May sat in Downing Street.
That shift is important given that Mr Johnson has been slow to grasp practical intricacies and historical sensitivities regarding Ireland and Brexit. But it is also important to set any progress on that front in the wider context of future relations with the EU. The Irish border problem first arose when Mrs May insisted on defining Brexit as withdrawal from the customs union and the single market. But she was then persuaded of the need for the UK to retain a high level of regulatory alignment with the rest of Europe. That judgment flowed from a commitment to frictionless trade, which led to “backstop” arrangements regarding Northern Ireland.
Mr Johnson rejected Mrs May’s deal largely because his ambition was served by appearing fiercer than her in Brexit spirit. But he also has different ideological instincts. Mr Johnson is a Eurosceptic in the tradition that vilifies Europe as the origin of red tape that suffocates enterprise. For Tories of that school, the very purpose of Brexit is liberation from a regulatory yoke imposed by “Brussels bureaucrats”. Hatred of the backstop has its origin in the ambition to extricate the UK economy from social protections preferred by many European countries. The theory is that a competitive edge is achieved by reducing the cost of doing business in Britain. In practice that involves cutting labour protections, lowering environmental standards and depressing wages.
That vision implies a different future relationship with the EU from the one signalled by Mrs May. The similarity of political constraints on the two Tory leaders – the strain of managing a minority government – creates a false impression that their Brexit deals are alike. But Mr Johnson’s approach renounces frictionless trade. It sacrifices access to EU markets on an altar of deregulation. His cut-throat competition model complicates negotiation of level-playing field provisions – the presumption of equivalent market conditions between trading partners. That introduces new hurdles for the completion of a free-trade agreement with Brussels post-Brexit. It erects costly new barriers, not just with Ireland but at every port in the UK. Hard Brexiters imagine compensation for restricted European access in the form of new free-trade deals around the world, but those would take time to negotiate, especially if discussions had to happen in parallel with the next stage of Brussels talks. The certain outcome is a prolonged period of trading limbo, the cost of which would come from the pockets of British workers.
Mr Johnson’s frantic rush to strike a Brexit bargain by 31 October has forced a focus on technicalities of withdrawal, but it also serves his agenda to distract attention from the bigger picture. Next week’s deadline has become a prop in a political drama, scripted by the prime minister, in which the 11th-hour delivery of a deal is meant to be the heroic climax.
But Brexit is not a game to help advance one man’s ambitions. It involves choices that will shape the strategic direction of the country for generations and affect millions of livelihoods. Any deal Mr Johnson can strike now is just the vehicle for withdrawal; what matters most is the eventual destination. The rhetoric he has relied upon, the fanatics he flatters and the political trajectory of his career all indicate a plan to take Britain in entirely the wrong direction.
This Brexit deal still won’t ‘get it done’ – only a referendum can do that
By Polly Toynbee*
These proposals are unlikely to pass the Commons. They should be put to a public vote that can finally settle the impasse
The red hand of Ulster says no. Their “blood-red line” has been crossed by putting a hard customs border down the Irish Sea, dividing them from the rest of the UK. They have lost the veto they wanted, reduced to a vote only held four years after the dual customs union comes into effect, aligned with the EU – and even then, they would have to wait for another two-year cooling-off period.
These devilishly good DUP negotiators usually succeed because their No Surrender reputation has the other side of the table believing their stony faces are unmovable. But this time it looks as though Boris Johnson has thrown them under another of his mendacious buses. Of course this could be a last-minute DUP bluff. There are rumours not only of a new medical school and a motorway, but also a daintily gift-wrapped “peace fund”, paid by the UK with EU contributions via the Irish government. However, the biblically well-versed DUP won’t be trading their birthright for that mess of pottage.
If no means no, that’s a heavy blow for Johnson – but even with DUP votes he can’t know if there are the numbers to push the deal through parliament. Johnson is back exactly where Theresa May was at Chequers with an EU deal agreed only to be blocked at Westminster – it would be a dose of his own medicine, as he was her prime rebel. Besides, his deal is far worse than May’s for the many Tory soft-leaver MPs who were once assured the UK would always keep close to Europe: this makes all borders rock hard, a lethal barrier to vital just-in-time trade.
ERG Europhobes may like this deal better than the last, but they have been mainlining hopes of a no-deal crash out. Will they follow the DUP lead, as they once promised? Then up jumps Nigel Farage to declare “the ‘new deal’ is not Brexit”, frightening the life out of Tory MPs in marginal seats.
Johnson chose to try to appease the ERGs, abandoning hope of those 19 Labour MPs who wrote to the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, backing a deal if it met their red lines. None of the red lines required by Stephen Kinnock and the others have been met, as “level playing field” alignment on regulations is moved from the withdrawal agreement into the non-binding political statement. As Downing Street asserts through a source to Robert Peston: “Britain is out of all EU laws. We will be able to change our laws in a huge number of areas from product standards to fishing rules and farming subsidies where we are currently bound by EU rules.” Just so. That is precisely what the Europhobes always wanted, the deregulated purpose of the whole Brexit fandango. Food safety and working conditions, traditionally well ahead of UK standards, will now be at the mercy of this Brexit government. Very few in Labour could tolerate that.
This deal unites Labour, and even fires up Jeremy Corbyn to cast aside his ancient scepticism and at last put his shoulder to the cause of killing it off. Today Labour was calling for a confirmatory referendum: ask the voters if this is really what they want? As Corbyn says, this deal “risks triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections: putting food safety at risk, cutting environmental standards and workers’ rights, and opening up our NHS to a takeover by US private corporations”.
There is a tide in politics, a natural surge towards resolution after years of excruciation and paralysis. Is the Get It Done sentiment so strong at Westminster that it will sweep aside doubters on all sides? MPs know that nothing is “done” if they sign up to Johnson’s deal: it’s only the beginning of unending torment over the economy-defining negotiations on customs, tariffs and regulations, where as an outsider the UK will have the weakest hand. Brexeternity beckons.
Johnson may not get his vote, and his own absurd “die in a ditch” pledges will make a forced extension a humiliation. The last chance to get his deal agreed would be to accept the Kyle-Wilson amendment for a confirmatory referendum ballot, which would see the Commons overwhelmingly pass it. That ends the impasse once and for all. If leave wins again, the agreement is ready to sign the next day – and those long, hard future negotiations begin. If remain wins, Brexit could be stopped in its tracks.
Labour would whip its MPs to back it, along with the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru – plus a growing numbers of Tories of the Dominic Grieve/Justine Greening variety.
Many shudder at the prospect of five long months of a referendum campaign that would be more bitter, more mendacious and savage than the last. But as hundreds of thousands of People’s Vote marchers file past parliament as it sits on Saturday, the worthwhile prize is a vote to stop Brexit dead: 204 polls for the past two years have put remain ahead, only seven for leave, with 15 ties – according to YouGov analysis for the Evening Standard.
A packed Labour for a Public Vote meeting in the Commons last night discussed ways to run a grassroots campaign, making the remain side a fiery insurgency, with greater input from young people and women; it could hardly be worse than the 2016 fiasco. But if leave were to win, that too would be a necessary catharsis. Remainers would just have to live with it, in the hope of drawing gradually closer to Europe again over the years.
A referendum can’t resolve the deep national rift, but it can clear the fetid air that has asphyxiated all political life.
*Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist. Her books include Dismembered: How the attack on the state harms us all, co-authored with David Walker. Twitter @pollytoynbee