Boris Johnson has good reason to keep Varadkar close
Finn McRedmond: British PM’s current position is in no small part due to Dublin
Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson in the Wirral in October 2019: they unlocked years of stagnation and internecine parliamentary warfare. Photograph: PA Wire
Boris Johnson heads into 2020 with a fresh mandate for carrying out Brexit, and the thumping majority required to do so. No longer beholden to the whims of the European Research Group (ERG) hardliners in his own party, and with the Democratic Unionist Party left out in the cold, his dominance of British politics is complete. In no small part, he owes his fortunate position to the pragmatism of Dublin in October 2019.
Looking back over the past three years in Brexit, a few moments stand out. Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement suffering a historic defeat in the House of Commons; the prorogation of parliament; seemingly endless extensions to article 50; and the seismic electoral victory Johnson secured with his mantra “get Brexit done”.
But as the history books are written one moment will stand out above them all – when Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson met in the Wirral in October 2019, were photographed walking together in the grounds of the estate, and where they finally unlocked the years of stagnation and internecine parliamentary warfare with their newly negotiated provisions for the Border.
It was precisely resolving that impasse that gifted Johnson with his credentials as dealmaker; the prime minister who would get Brexit done. It not only led those in his party to rally around him in a way they hadn’t previously, but also it formed the basis of the election campaign he took to the country, and which the country in turn roundly accepted.
So as Ireland heads into a general election in the early months of 2020, with a changing of the guard looking increasingly likely, the UK should heed the lessons of October 2019 – that no matter how inconvenient it may seem, to make Brexit work, the UK needs to keep its friends close.
Because Johnson’s recent successes as prime minister comes not just from his management of his own party, dangling the sword of Damocles over those MPs who might dare to defy him. It comes also from his realisation that the key to solving what seemed like an interminable impasse did not solely lie with parliament, and certainly not with Paris or Berlin, but with Dublin. He succeeded precisely where his predecessor Theresa May failed – that May visited Dublin only twice in her tenure, once in January 2017 and then again in February 2019, against endless trips to France and Germany, is evidence enough of this.
Johnson has a rapport with Varadkar and will not have forgotten Varadkar was the first EU leader to give him a chance
The preferred outcome for Downing Street in the face-off between Micheál Martin and Varadkar is largely obvious – Johnson has an established rapport with Varadkar, and will not have forgotten that Varadkar too was the first EU leader to give Johnson a chance, believing in him as a good-faith negotiator.
As Varadkar struggles with what many see as a litany of domestic failings, Fianna Fáil’s Martin may soon take up the reins. However, when it comes to Brexit policy, the two can scarcely be divided with a cigarette paper – given the value of the Irish-UK trading relationship, any deal that hits the UK hard will have a disproportionately negative effect on Ireland. For both Varadkar and Martin, a soft landing is overwhelmingly in Ireland’s interest.
And Johnson’s natural affinity for realpolitik – the exact attribute that helped him unlock a deal with Varadkar in the first place – will kick in, and allow him to establish whatever kind of working relationship with Martin that is necessary.
But crucially Dublin’s role in phase two will be a slightly diminished one – the real power now lies in the European Commission, where the UK has imposed an unprecedentedly short 11-month deadline to hammer out a trade deal. Ireland has a powerful ally in trade commissioner Phil Hogan, who has already begun flexing his muscles, questioning the rationale behind UK’s self-inflicted deadline for agreeing the future relationship.
Thanks to the pragmatism of both sides of the Irish Sea, Anglo-Irish relations have turned a corner
Whether Johnson is actually on course for a major collision with Brussels as the next phase begins remains to be seen. What he should not forget, however, is that, thanks to the pragmatism of both sides of the Irish Sea, Anglo-Irish relations have turned a corner, and are distinctly more cordial than seemed possible a mere year ago.
But this step in the right direction is just a step. The second phase – to be dominated by trade negotiations between the UK and the EU – is still fraught with capacity for error and infighting. The competing visions of Brexit are still legion, and there is still the commission to tussle with. The precise operation of the Border has been left unresolved. And member states will continue to vie for the best possible outcome for their trading bloc. French president Emmanuel Macron is vocal in his assertion that the UK should not expect an easy ride.
Johnson should not read his impressive election victory as a vindication of the hardline rhetoric that accompanied his ascension to office. Instead, he should understand the conditions that led him here were compromise and careful management of competing interests – in which Dublin played an exceptionally accommodating role, even though that would be readily denied by most Brexiteers.
There’s a lesson for the coming months and years of Brexit – keep your friends close, and never underestimate the cordiality fostered by a walk in a country garden.