Boris Johnson’s Bill just another phony bargaining chip

London Letter: Prime minister may be redeploying tedious combative campaign trickery

UK prime minister Boris Johnson: The decision to break international law comes a year – almost to the day – after he persuaded Queen Elizabeth to prorogue parliament. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/PA

UK prime minister Boris Johnson: The decision to break international law comes a year – almost to the day – after he persuaded Queen Elizabeth to prorogue parliament. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/PA

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In the early 1930s, Cambridge psychologist Frederick Bartlett asked 20 students to read a Native American folk tale called The War of the Ghosts and to recall it at intervals of hours, days, weeks and months. 

At the time, remembering was generally seen as something like a process of recording new stimuli and reproducing them later. But Bartlett found that with each retelling of the story, his subjects eliminated more of its unfamiliar elements and replaced them with more familiar ones.

Canoes became boats, seal hunting became fishing and after a while the ghosts themselves disappeared so the story became one about a war between tribes. Bartlett believed he had discovered something important about how memory works.

“Primarily it depends on the active bias, or special reaction tendencies, that are awakened in the observer by the new material, and it is these tendencies which then set the new in relation to the old,” he wrote.

“This process of rationalisation is only partially – it might be said only lazily – an intellectual process. No doubt the attempt, however little defined, to seek out the connexions of things is always to some degree intellectual. But here the effort stops when it produces an attitude best described as ‘the attitude in which no further questions are asked’. The end state is primarily affective.”

International law

Something similar appears to happen in the minds of Boris Johnson and his team of Vote Leave campaign veterans in Downing Street when they are confronted with a new political challenge. Whether it is coronavirus, Keir Starmer or negotiating with the European Union, everything ends up within the schema of the combative campaigning style that has produced Johnson’s greatest successes.

This week’s decision to break international law by disapplying parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement comes a year – almost to the day – after Johnson persuaded Queen Elizabeth to prorogue parliament. That move, which was ruled unlawful by Britain’s supreme court, provoked more outrage among Johnson’s enemies than this week’s UK Internal Market Bill – and the same level of insouciance within his inner circle.

As we try to understand what Downing Street’s purpose is, it is instructive to recall what happened in the weeks following last year’s prorogation. Johnson said he would not sign any withdrawal agreement with the EU unless the Northern Ireland backstop was removed from it and he stuck to that position as the deadline of an EU summit in mid-October approached.

Johnson said this week that he would give up on finding a deal if none was in sight before the next European Council meeting on October 15th. Last year, Parliament set the deadline by ordering him to seek an extension to Britain’s EU membership if he did not secure a deal by October 19th.

Previous predictions

Johnson consistently said he would not seek an extension regardless of any law Parliament passed. And in early October a senior Downing Street source sent a long message to Spectator political editor James Forsyth saying the talks were about to collapse.

“We’ll either leave with no deal on October 31st or there will be an election and then we will leave with no deal,” the source said.

“We won’t engage in further talks, we obviously won’t give any undertakings about co-operative behaviour, everything to do with ‘duty of sincere co-operation’ will be in the toilet, we will focus on winning the election on a manifesto of immediately revoking the entire EU legal order without further talks, and then we will leave.”

A few days later, Johnson met Leo Varadkar at a hotel in Cheshire and after a walk in the grounds, they agreed a formula that would see the backstop replaced by the arrangements in the Northern Ireland protocol that put a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea.

As remembered by the Vote Leave team in Downing Street, this capitulation was a famous diplomatic victory that was only possible because the EU understood that Johnson’s threat to walk away was real. We could be witnessing a similar ritual now as the UK Internal Markets Bill becomes a phony bargaining chip that Johnson can agree to take off the table if Emmanuel Macron or Angela Merkel agrees to facilitate the deal on fisheries and state aid that was always on the cards.

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