March 30. 2023. 3:17

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A swift end or slow death for Boris Johnson will bring more Brexit twists

Anyone in the EU who has endured Boris Johnson’s serial dishonesty would need a heart of stone not to gloat at his current difficulties. A prime minister who signed an international treaty thinking he could break it when it suited him was never likely to be a very effective enforcer of coronavirus restrictions with his team in 10 Downing Street.

When the game is up for a British Prime Minister, it is customary to quote Robert Browning’s poem ‘The Lost Leader’, that the doomed politician will ‘never see glad confident morning again’. It’s particularly appropriate for Johnson who has never been one for details but campaigned with sunny optimism, a British version of Ronald Reagan and his slogan ‘it’s morning in America’.

Within weeks he could be a lame duck, having lost the confidence of his party and waiting for it to choose his successor. But if MPs move in for the kill too quickly, it could backfire. A vote of no confidence that his enemies -and disillusioned supporters- aren’t certain of winning could simply prolong the agony.


Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, survived to put the UK and EU through more fruitless Brexit drama after winning a vote triggered by over-impatient plotters. Many EU leaders probably wouldn’t mind if he staggered on for a bit longer, if not for the guilty pleasure of seeing him suffer more then because it’s often handy that Brexit Britain remains a warning to voters of where populism and anti-EU rhetoric can lead.

The more responsible question for the EU and its member states to ask themselves is what the impact will be on attempts to settle dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol. A slower political death for the Prime Minister might be the better answer.

After Lord Frost lost patience with him, Johnson entrusted negotiations with Commissioner Šefčovič to his fiercely ambitious foreign secretary, Liz Truss. Truss is a leading contender to be the UK’s next Prime Minister and is well aware that she must convince her party that she has truly renounced the heretical belief that membership of the EU was good idea.


Opinion polls suggest that although Brexit remains a divisive issue for the British public, it is those who voted to leave in the referendum who are more likely to regret their choice. But Truss assures us that she is an exception, a campaigner to remain who now thinks that Brexit is brilliant and who would definitely have voted to leave if she had know how well it would turn out. Still, even paradise can be improved it seems, so she joined the talks about the protocol expressing her willingness to suspend it completely if the EU didn’t offer more concessions.

If Boris Johnson’s attempt to save himself, which he has named Operation Big Dog, is as risible as it sounds, the Conservative party will be choosing a new Prime Minister within weeks. In those circumstances, Liz Truss will want to be seen as a tough negotiator with the EU over Northern Ireland. Triggering article 16 of the protocol, which would suspend it and push UK-EU relations to their lowest point yet, would be a serious temptation.

If Johnson staggers on, either because he won a vote of confidence amongst his MPs or because the vote is delayed until after local council elections in May, Truss would more likely want a deal with Šefčovič. Triggering article 16 would be less attractive if a Conservative party leadership contest wasn’t imminent. It is bad enough to start a political crisis in Northern Ireland, much worse to refuse to end it. By the time Johnson was finally toppled the UK could have been forced back to the negotiating table, now under the threat of EU trade sanctions.

The better option for Truss would be to strike a deal, claim that it was only her tough stance that secured it and take credit for what Michel Barnier suggested when he was the EU’s negotiator, a ‘de-dramatised’ Irish Sea border. Checks would not just be fewer but would mostly be inconspicuous, making sure that the hauliers have given the ferry companies the correct paperwork.

If all this seems cynical, that’s because cynicism is the price of dealing with Boris Johnson. But there is one glimmer of optimism about a more positive EU-UK relationship. If the EU can live with an open border with Northern Ireland, so long as it’s apparent that there’s no significant unauthorised traffic from the rest of the UK, it is equally possible for the UK to be relaxed about trade with the whole island of Ireland.

It’s notable that Britain’s new checks on EU imports do not apply to arrivals from ports anywhere in Ireland. This could yet be the first small step towards the day when gladness and confidence return to relations between the UK and EU.

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