Fintan O’Toole: Johnson's breaking of Brexit pledge is smart-arse duplicity

‘Oven-ready’ policy tactic had secret addendum – ‘we’ll go back and edit the cookbook’

Everybody knows Boris Johnson can lie for England. To his supporters, it was one of his best assets. They believed he could bamboozle the European Union into giving him the only Brexit deal that is really acceptable – one that gives Britain all the advantages of being in the EU without any of the botheration of being a member. The problem is that congenital mendacity isn't just for foreigners. If you lie for England, you will also lie to England.

This week, these two streams of fabrication finally became one. In openly admitting that it signed the withdrawal agreement with the EU in bad faith, Johnson’s Vote Leave government also implicitly confessed that it lied wholesale to the electorate in December’s general election. The cross-contamination of domestic politics by the deceit that is Brexit’s DNA is now complete.

On Tuesday, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis brazenly informed the House of Commons that a Bill to amend the Irish protocol of the withdrawal agreement with the EU would “break international law”, albeit in “limited and specific ways”. The qualification is nonsense. If one side can unilaterally change any bits of a treaty, nothing in it is binding. But in any case, Lewis’s declaration was part of a much wider contention: that the British never quite understood what they were signing.

That same day, Johnson’s court gazette, the Daily Telegraph, led with the headline “Brexit deal never made sense, PM to tell EU”. The story quoted “a senior government source” as claiming that some of its consequences “were not foreseen” at the time and that the treaty would have to be “rewritten to protect the union”.


What about the DUP?

In itself, this claim is fraudulent. The idea that Johnson has suddenly realised that the protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland within the ambit of the EU’s customs union and single market, and thus has negative implications for the union, is risible. This was precisely what Johnson’s close allies in the Democratic Unionist party were screaming about when he made the agreement in October 2019. It was the reason why Johnson himself had sworn blind to the DUP that he would never agree to such a thing. If Johnson didn’t see that a radically different Brexit for one part of the UK would destabilise the union, he is an idiot. But in this case, he can be exonerated on that charge – he knew damn well and did it anyway.

He did it for the same reason he and his Vote Leave crew do everything else: because it suits their immediate interests. Theresa May’s Northern Ireland backstop was threatening to bring the whole Brexit project crashing down. Then taoiseach Leo Varadkar offered Johnson a way out – the so-called “border in the Irish Sea”. Johnson, the supreme opportunist, grabbed it, screwed the DUP, declared victory and the rest is history.

But this is where the real fakery starts. It is clear that Johnson and his most important confreres, Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove, never really saw this as anything other than a clever dodge, a tactical retreat. On his blog in March 2019, when May was in power, Cummings addressed “dear Vote Leave activists: don’t worry about the so-called ‘permanent’ commitments this historically abysmal Cabinet are trying to make on our behalf. They are not ‘permanent’ and a serious government – one not cowed by officials and their bullshit ‘legal advice’ with which they have herded ministers like sheep – will dispense with these commitments.”

In May, former chairman of the European Research Group Steve Baker wrote in the Critic that Cummings “said we should vote for the original withdrawal agreement without reading it, on the basis Michael Gove articulated: we could change it later”. This had indeed been Gove’s line since December 2017: “If the British people dislike the agreement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.”

This idea that Britain could sign the withdrawal agreement with its fingers crossed behind its back and then just ignore it later on is, in a way, perfectly consistent with the larger mentality of Brexit. At the heart of its theology is the fantasy that there is such a thing as absolute national sovereignty, a complete unilateral freedom of action that had been taken away by EU membership. Once Britain is “unchained” from the EU, Britain can do whatever it damn well pleases. The withdrawal treaty is not a set of permanent obligations, merely a route towards the obligation-free future that starts on January 1st, 2021.

The Brexiteers don’t much mind that this trick requires Britain to expose itself openly as a rogue state that treats international agreements as disposable handkerchiefs. In their solipsism, they presumably haven’t bothered to look up, for example, the membership of the House ways and means committee that would control any trade deal Britain might make with the US. (To save them the bother, it’s chaired by Richard Neal, and includes his fellow Irish-American Democrats Brendan Boyle and Brian Higgins, all highly engaged with Northern Ireland.)

So what’s the catch?

The catch is that all of this doesn’t stop at smart-arse duplicity towards other countries. It involves the flagrant deception of English voters. More perhaps than any modern election, Johnson’s campaign in December was reduced to a single issue and three words: Get Brexit Done. This was to be achieved by electing a parliament that was absolutely committed to passing the “oven-ready” and “excellent” withdrawal agreement.

There was always one level of spuriousness in this – the withdrawal agreement was not the end of anything. But it is now clear that there was a much deeper and even more cynical level of fakery. It was not just that Brexit would not be “done” when the withdrawal agreement was duly passed, it was that Cummings and Johnson intended all along to undo it. What was presented to voters as a point of no return was, to them, a temporary arrangement that they would unpick later. “Oven-ready” had a secret addendum, “but we’ll go back and edit the cookbook to change the ingredients”.

Brexit is a promise that was made to be broken because the best of all worlds the voters were offered in 2016 was always a mirage. But that breach has grown and widened over time. It is now an open chasm in British democracy.

This article was written for the Guardian