Boris Johnson ridiculed over latest Brexit challenge remarks

British foreign secretary likened Border to transit between ‘Camden and Westminster’

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson has suggested a system similar to London's congestion charge zone could be implemented on the Irish border post-Brexit. Video: BBC


Boris Johnson has faced ridicule from opposition politicians after he compared the challenge of avoiding a hard border in Ireland after Brexit with introducing a traffic congestion charge in London boroughs.

In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, the British foreign secretary said technological systems could ensure that no “excessive checks” were needed.

“There’s no border between Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks whatever,” he said.

When it was put to him that enforcing the congestion charge in parts of central London was not comparable to policing a historically disputed border, Mr Johnson insisted that it was.

“I think it’s a very relevant comparison, because there is all sorts of scope for pre-booking, electronic checks, all sorts of things that you can do to obviate the need for a hard border, to allow us to come out of the customs union, take back control of our trade policy and do trade deals,” he said.

Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith described the comments as “typically facile and thoughtless” and Chris Leslie, a prominent Labour Remainer, said they showed that the foreign secretary did not understand the problem Brexit posed for the Border.

‘Stupefying ignorance’

“To compare the Border between two sovereign states, the UK and the Republic of Ireland, to the boundaries between different London boroughs is not only patently ridiculous but also shows staggering insensitivity and a stupefying ignorance of a conflict in which over 3,000 people died between 1969 and the signing of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement.

“Boris Johnson’s tenure as foreign secretary and Brexit cheerleader shows he has the reverse Midas touch: everything he touches turns to muck,” he said.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady ridiculed Mr Johnson’s remarks in a tweet. “Planning to travel from Tottenham Court Road to Westminster this evening. Anyone know what the wait time at the border is like?” she said. Labour MP David Lammy took a similar approach on Twitter.

“When I was a young boy we were told to stay away from the Troubles on the Caledonian Rd & marching bands in Regent’s Park. The Chalk Farm Peace Agreement has brought peace in our time. People can get the tube from Camden Town to Finsbury Park without being searched at the border,” he said.

The House of Lords EU committee wrote to Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley on Tuesday to express concern about the lack of clarity on how the British government will resolve the tensions between its aspirations to leave the customs union, avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and ensure no new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Contradictory commitments

Michael Jay, who chaired the committee’s inquiry into the impact of Brexit on Ireland, said the more one looked at the detail of the December agreement between Britain and the EU, the harder it becomes to reconcile its apparently contradictory commitments.

“The European Commission is about to publish the draft legal text emerging from December’s agreement, so any differences in interpretation of what regulatory alignment actually means need to be settled now. We need to know precisely how the UK and EU will both prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and avoid any new barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, while the UK also leaves the customs union.

“We don’t yet know how that circle will be squared,” he said. “In a whole range of areas where cross-Border co-operation is essential, from trade to healthcare and energy security to police co-operation we need to get this right. It is time for the government to be clear and unequivocal about how it will turn its ambitions into reality.”