“We have a deal!”, said the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, on 17th October, following intense negotiations with the UK. Juncker was referring to a new draft treaty on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU). But early reports suggest that British Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson has merely rehashed former PM Theresa May’s disastrous Withdrawal Agreement. The hardcore Brexiteers within and without the Conservative and Unionist Party (Tories) will not be pleased. When May presented her treaty as a bill to the British Parliament three times earlier this year, she lost on every occasion. May’s first loss was the biggest in Parliamentary history: 432 against, 202 in favor. Once May stood down, the Tory Members of Parliament whittled their choice of successor, and thus the new PM for the whole country (without a general election), to two: Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt.
Johnson (BoJo the racist clown) won the contest. He was elected by 92,153 grassroots members of the UK’s ruling Tories—or approximately 0.13 percent of the British population—compared to Hunt, who won 46,656 votes. It’s not just the numbers. The Tory grassroots are ideologically in the minority. Just a month before BoJo was elected Tory members were surveyed. Fifty-four percent (compared to 36 percent) said that they’d rather sacrifice the Union (of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) than sacrifice Brexit. The split from the official line—that the Tories’ raison d’être is to protect the Union—demonstrates that Tory grassroots members are Little Englanders. This is complicated by the fact that the majority of Scots and Northern Irish who voted in the 2016 EU referendum voted for Britain to remain in the EU.
BOJO THE TOUGH GUY
For a while, the Tories were content with stumbling along until 2022 when the UK had to have a general election by law. But when the Brexit Party came along, the right-wing Tory vote had, for the first time, the chance of being split in a general election. This perfect storm coincided with a scandal involving Britain’s readiness under PM Theresa May to betray US security arrangements by possibly selling part of the UK’s 5G network to China and thus potentially compromising the Five Eyes Alliance. By July, May was gone. The Tory MPs and grassroots decided to back BoJo because they believed that he was tough enough to force the UK out of the EU without a deal, and in doing so out-Brexit Partying the Brexit Party. This tough-guy posturing gave BoJo and the Tories a massive bounce in the polls (though a lower one in reality than Theresa May’s already low mid-term approval rating) and staved off the electoral threat of the new Brexit Party, which is yet to win a seat in Parliament.
Following the leak of secret documents (Yellowhammer) predicting potential disaster in the face of a no-deal Brexit, BoJo posed for the cameras in front of new police graduates. Arriving late and violating an earlier agreement (that he wouldn’t turn the photo op into a political speech), BoJo was publicly criticized by Chief Constable John Robins. One graduate nearly fainted in the heat during BoJo’s speech as a result his keeping them waiting. After these police-state, pre-election optics, BoJo gave a one-word answer, “No,” on the record in Parliament when asked by Labour MP Ian Murray if he would obey the law (the Benn Act) and seek an extension to prevent the UK from leaving the EU without a deal. The queen even sought legal advice on how to sack BoJo after the Scottish Court of Session ruled that he had “misled” her when he tried to close Parliament for five weeks to prevent scrutiny of his Brexit policy. The British Supreme Court ruled the apparent prorogation null and void. BoJo also told the public that their elected representatives are their enemies (just as Theresa May had months earlier) and that only he and his hard-right cabinet are the true Brexiteers executing the will of the people.
The hard-man posturing was designed to steal support from the Brexit Party in case a general election occurred. The major obstacles to Theresa May’s deal from within the Tory party were a dozen or so hardcore Brexiteers within the Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG), and the provincial Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland (NI) which has seats in the devolved Assembly Parliament at Stormont in NI and in the House of Commons in Westminster.
At present, the DUP has 38 seats in Stormont and 10 in Westminster. The main problem for Brexiteers is that the sovereign Republic of Ireland (RoP) is a member of the EU and wishes to stay a member of the EU. The island of RoP has a border with the island of Britain via Britain’s NI territory. This is a problem for Brexiteers because the US-brokered Good Friday Agreement (1998) appeases republicans living in NI and unionists living there by keeping NI part of Britain, but also demanding an open border with the RoI. If the UK is no longer a member of the EU, the customs checks for goods and services would violate the Good Friday Agreement because it would mean a “hard border” (i.e., border infrastructure) between NI and the RoI.
For the DUP, which represents hard-right, unionists in NI’s devolved Assembly, May’s treaty was unacceptable because it treated NI differently to the rest of the UK; hardcore unionism being one of the DUP’s few methods of winning votes domestically. If the DUP was seen to abandon its commitment to unionism, it risks punishment at the polls. DUP votes in Westminster for any Brexit deal are crucial to the Tories because in 2017, the Tories lost their majority in a snap general election and bribed the DUP with £1 billion to prop up them up in a confidence-and-supply agreement. Unless BoJo can get enough Labour Party rebels to agree to vote for his new draft treaty, he will need the support of the DUP and the ERG. This is even more imperative since BoJo sacked 21 of his own MPs for voting against him on seeking a Brexit extension.
The May-EU solution to the problematic issue of honoring the Good Friday Agreement in any Brexit scenario was a negotiated Northern Ireland Protocol (“the backstop”). But the advice of the UK’s Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, confirmed what the ERG and DUP feared, that the backstop had the potential to keep the UK in a customs arrangement and thus under some form of regulatory control of the EU. Donald Trump said that the May deal prevented the US from signing that all-important “free trade” deal with a post-Brexit Britain. BoJo’s rhetorical position was is that if the EU didn’t capitulate to British demands (“compromise”) then the UK would leave without a deal. This was scuppered by the Benn Act, which forces BoJo to seek an extension if Parliament fails to pass the new draft treaty.
THINGS FALL APART
But the early reports on the new draft treaty suggest that BoJo had simply “surrendered” to EU demands—as the hard-right, Little Englanders refer to genuine compromise—and had rejigged May’s failed plan. Tory MP and ERG member Iain Duncan Smith, for instance, initially congratulated BoJo on becoming PM under on the assumption that BoJo would honor commitments to a hardcore Brexit, saying on 25 July: “the EU will have listened and realised that the days of supplication are over.” But later on 16th October, Smith reportedly “exploded” when he learned that BoJo had betrayed the ERG and the DUP by conceding to EU demands.
The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said that under the May-BoJo rehash treaty, NI will follow “a limited set of EU rules, notably related to goods”; the UK will have to insure that EU Customs rules are adhered to in NI; NI will remain an entry point for EU goods; non-EU traded goods deemed at risk of entering the EU Single Market via NI will have to pay EU tariffs; VAT will avoid competitive distortions (which could mean Britain having to alter its VAT rules in case the EU deems them unfairly competitive); and finally the devolved Assembly in NI, which consists of republicans and unionists, will eventually get to vote on these arrangements “by simple majority.”
This is a serious problem for the DUP and ideological members of the ERG because, not only does it trap NI ideologically in EU arrangements, it also means that NI could de facto re-enter further EU arrangements after 4 years, based on a simple vote at the NI Assembly if republicans (who want to stay in the EU and be as close to RoI rules as possible) win a majority. The long-time DUP enemy in NI, Sinn Féin (republicans), would be seen by the DUP and its voters as having too much power over the future of the UK. For them, BoJo’s “surrender” is potentially a British surrender to Irish terrorism (never mind the DUP’s historical support for unionist terrorism).
The DUP stated that this arrangement was not acceptable to them. The ERG at the time of writing are split, with some like Steve Baker appearing to premise their support on the “free trade” potentials and others like Andrew Bridgen appearing to base their tentative support on more ideological grounds, namely keeping NI part of the Union; which, as noted above, many grassroots Tories are willing to abandon. As far as half the ERG is concerned and as far as the DUP appear to be concerned, BoJo has thrown them under the bus: under one of the big, red London buses that he claims to enjoy painting.
BoJo has a reputation for being a liar and a buffoon. He also has a track-record of changing his mind and being an opportunist; for instance, writing two articles, one pro-Remain, one pro-Leave, and choosing at the last politically expedient minute to publish the pro-Leave article. BoJo has now scared moderate MPs into backing any deal for fear of a no-deal alternative, which was never going to happen, presented them with May’s deal, and taken credit for all the work that May’s team did for two-and-a-half years. Did those in the ERG and DUP, and those at the Tory grassroots who threatened to defect to the Brexit Party, really think that they could trust a mendacious jester to force through a hard-Brexit? As someone on social media wrote at the time of BoJo’s election to leader of the Tories and thus PM of Britain: elect a clown, expect a pie in your face.