Boris Johnson’s recklessness may now pay dividends

Conservative leader’s past actions could help pass the Brexit deal in the Commons

British prime minister Boris Johnson arrives for an EU summit  in Brussels. Photograph: Julien Warnand/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

British prime minister Boris Johnson arrives for an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Julien Warnand/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

 

And all of a sudden, against all expectations . . . white smoke. The UK and the EU have agreed a Brexit deal, but now prime minister Boris Johnson faces the hard part: getting it through parliament. Where Theresa May tried and failed three times to ratify her withdrawal agreement, signs could be tentatively pointing towards Boris Johnson pulling off what was considered to be the impossible.

Ever since the ill-fated election May called in 2017, parliament has been hopelessly inert. The Conservatives were beholden to the DUP to prop up their government. There was no majority for May’s deal, a second referendum, or revoking article 50. MPs could agree on one thing – that they didn’t want no-deal – but they couldn’t find a consensus for a way around the impasse.

Johnson, then, should be in an even worse position than May. He has no majority, nor does he have the DUP onside; the Lib Dems are enjoying a serious fight back as the unofficial party of Remain, and he’s made plenty of parliamentary enemies along the way. But hopes are high among Conservatives right now.

As the details of Johnson’s deal came to light on Thursday morning, the DUP declared their outright, non-negotiable opposition. Johnson has put a regulatory border in the Irish Sea (something he said he could never countenance), and he’s lost the backing of those 10 DUP MPs who were so crucial to May’s government.

The commonly accepted narrative is that without the DUP onside, Johnson will also lose the support of the hardline Conservative Eurosceptics, the so-called ERG “Spartans”. This faction of the Tory Party have long claimed that the litmus test for the acceptability of any deal was the integrity of the union, evidenced with the DUP’s support. Without them Johnson looked to stand no hope of getting his deal through the Commons. But things may pan out differently on Saturday.

Revised Withdrawal Agreement

Because Johnson – for all the chaos that has descended on Westminster in the past few weeks (and months) – has an ace up his sleeve. In September, he kicked out 21 of his own Conservative MPs for defying him and voting for the Benn amendment (which requires him to seek a Brexit extension in lieu of striking a deal with the EU). What then seemed like a reckless move, expelling party luminaries and turning his majority into a deficit of 43, may start paying dividends to the prime minister now.

Functionally obsolete

With no governing majority to speak of, the DUP are functionally obsolete to Johnson. And despite the ERG usually following in the footsteps of the DUP, the threat of deselection hangs like the sword of Damocles over them. Johnson has proved that he will let it fall. He has done it once with the September rebels, and he will do it again.

So, when push comes to shove, Johnson may not need the DUP onside to pick up the crucial votes from the hardline Eurosceptics. In reality the ERG will likely split, with some taking orders from Belfast and most cowing to the prime minister they put in post.

Boris Johnson would perhaps be as likely passing May’s withdrawal agreement as his own

The irony of the whole charade is that Johnson’s deal is not markedly different to what was originally offered by the European Union. That is, some kind of Northern-Ireland-only backstop; an open border between the North and the Republic, and a border in the Irish Sea. What was then unacceptable to the ERG, and Johnson, is now the basis of the deal he is putting to parliament. So why could Johnson’s deal stand any chance of passing?

The politics of Brexit is as dominated by narrative as it is by policy. And this deal is simply being sold by better storytellers. Boris Johnson is – or would have you believe he is – a committed Brexiteer, a lifelong Eurosceptic, a prime minister happy to expel 21 moderate Conservatives to pull off Brexit at all costs, and a man as happy to leave with no deal as any other kind of deal.

Ideologically incompatible

Theresa May, meanwhile, voted to Remain in 2016. Her cabinet was full of ideologically incompatible ministers, from longtime Eurosceptics such as Michael Gove to Remainers such as Justine Greening. Despite her constantly repeating that “no deal” was better than a “bad deal”, the ERG, who held her party in its clutches, simply never believed she meant it. How could a non-believer ever deliver a Brexit in their best interests?

The difference here then isn’t one of substance. Johnson would perhaps be as likely passing May’s withdrawal agreement as his own. Because it’s not just the message but the messenger that counts. May was never going to have the crucial factions of the Conservatives onside. But Johnson might just manage it. They just believe he means it that bit more.

In playing hardball with the EU, threatening a no-deal exit should they fail to strike out the infamous backstop clauses, Johnson can present this deal as the denouement to a grand narrative for his Tory colleagues: after trial and tribulation, a European climbdown at the hands of a true believer. But there’s another narrative at work that Johnson can exploit – the view, widespread among a majority of parliamentarians, that this has gone on long enough. If Johnson can convince enough Labour rebels onside with the idea that his deal is a final – if painful – resolution, then it could be just sufficient to get it over the line.

Finn McRedmond is political correspondent for Reaction.life

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