The downfall of Boris Johnson comes as a huge relief to the Government in Dublin, which has been locked in a long-running conflict with him over the Northern Ireland protocol. However, it would be foolish to assume that things will improve under his successor as Conservative Party leader, or even under a Labour government led by Kier Starmer.
The lesson from the Brexit saga is that the two big parties in the UK are so focused on narrow party political advantage that they are prepared to ignore the long-term interests of the British people, never mind the consequences of their actions for the island of Ireland.
This was clearly the case in the early months of 2019 when Theresa May’s efforts to get the best available deal for the UK through the House of Commons was thwarted by a combination of right-wing Conservatives, egged on by Boris Johnson, and the Labour and Scottish Nationalist opposition.
Although a clear majority of MPs claimed to be in favour of a close post-Brexit trading relationship with the EU, which would have avoided the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland or one in the Irish Sea, May’s efforts to deliver it were scuppered by an unholy alliance of her enemies in the Conservative Party and the opposition.
May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, in a memoir of his time in Downing Street, described how she was undermined from within by Johnson and stymied by Starmer when she made a last-ditch attempt to get opposition support for her deal. “Jeremy Corbyn wanted to do it but Kier Starmer stopped it — it seems fitting that he is now dealing with the consequences,” he wrote last year.
In the past week Starmer has promised that he will repeal Johnson’s recent legislation setting aside the protocol if he takes power, but he came out strongly against any return of the UK to the EU single market or the customs union. Where that would leave the operation of the protocol is anybody’s guess.
The baleful influence of the European Research Group (ERG) on the Conservative Party looks set to continue for the immediate future, with the leading candidates to succeed as prime minister all polishing up their credentials as opponents of the protocol.
It is possible that once a new leader is installed he or she may take a more pragmatic view and engage in a realistic dialogue with the EU about how the protocol can be made to work in a way that causes the least possible disruption in trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.
It can’t have escaped notice that Johnson’s downfall was inextricably linked to his decision to renege on the protocol he signed up to in October 2019 to get Brexit done as the basis of his successful general election campaign. His subsequent manoeuvres to wriggle out of the deal began the narrative of a prime minister who didn’t keep his word.
This willingness to break his word on an international treaty when taken in tandem with a succession of domestic scandals shredded his credibility in domestic politics. It has also had a huge impact on the international standing of the UK, which is now deeply distrusted in Europe and beyond.
A galling example was provided at the beginning of the week when Johnson solemnly tweeted a video message to mark the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong by the UK to China. “Twenty-five years ago we made a promise to the people of Hong Kong. We intend to keep it,” he said, rightly criticising China’s policy of eroding the freedoms of the people living in the former colony.
A few hours later the Chinese embassy in Dublin came back with a zinger of a response. “Two years ago we made a promise to the Northern Ireland Protocol. We are determined to break it.” There was simply no answer to that.
Closer to home the German government engaged in an unusual display of solidarity with the Irish position, with foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and her Irish counterpart Simon Coveney writing a joint opinion piece for the Observer newspaper last weekend.
“There is no legal or political justification for unilaterally breaking an international agreement entered into only two years ago,” they warned. The ministers went on to say that the EU “stands by the protocol” but is open to being creative and flexible in finding solutions to issues raised about its operation.
If there is any rationality left in British politics the next prime minister will engage in a serious dialogue with the EU to test its sincerity about being creative and flexible with regard to the protocol and will also try to reassure unionists that the arrangement will give Northern Ireland the best possible future.
The departure of Johnson offers a chance to the Irish and British governments, the EU and the parties in the North an opportunity for a fresh start on the protocol. Whether they all take it is another matter.