On Monday, BBC Newsnight voiced a nation’s question to vocal leave means leave merchant and Tory MP Bernard Jenkin. “Listening to Lisa [Chambers] and Simon Coveney,” said presenter Emily Maitlis, “Britain doesn’t mind being bombastic and leaving everything in pieces?”
“This is a negotiation,” replied Jenkin.
But the UK government signed up to the Brexit withdrawal agreement, didn't it?
“It was signed at a time by a government that was incredibly weak and gripped by political and constitutional crises. The EU was taking some advantage of that situation at the time,” said Jenkin. He only voted for the agreement “because there didn’t seem to be an alternative”, he said, while deploying the full range of winsome facial expressions.
No idea how we got here gov, don’t remember, I wasn’t there. And just like that the narrative switched from the “fantastic deal for all of the UK” trumpeted by Boris Johnson in October 2019 to the nasty old EU taking advantage of poor little us.
So did it?
Quick recap: On October 17th, 2019, three months into Johnson’s leadership and following much fantastical bluster and threats, the British prime minister and the EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker announced they had struck a withdrawal deal. In it Johnson had signed up to something he had vowed he would never do; there would be a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea.
When his attempt to ram the deal through parliament in just three days was thwarted, the Bill lapsed. On a fourth attempt he won Commons support for a snap general election on December 12th, then thanks to his thumping new 80-seat majority, the Bill was passed – with changes even – on January 23rd, 2020. A week before, the EU-UK Joint Committee had formally endorsed all decisions related to the Northern Ireland protocol. So much for the bleating “incredibly weak government” narrative.
As the need to pin the Brexit blame elsewhere grows more acute, Jenkin urged us not to look to the past. That would draw attention to the political mediocrities who negotiated the deal. The more serious problem for us is that past performance with these boys is very much an indicator of future results.
The injunction never to play chess with a pigeon is always applicable here. (The pigeon just knocks all the pieces over, sh*ts all over the board, then struts around like it won). The pigeon got his trade agreement but only – remember the careful EU timeline – after being nailed down by the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol with its blindingly clear role for the European Court of Justice.
The latest furore was kicked off by David Frost’s bafflingly belated punt against the ECJ, but the word is that the Brexit minister himself is loving the fuss. Those who deemed him too pedestrian to see the risks of Brexit yet cunning enough to spot it as a speedway out of career obscurity, got it only partly right.
If anyone could see the dangers, it was Frost. A few weeks before the 2016 referendum on the UK leaving the EU, in an essay for a Portland Communications collection, he made an inarguable case for remaining. Sample quotes: “So all these [trading model] arrangements would leave the UK with less access to the single market than before. Would this be outweighed by freedom to negotiate our own trading arrangement with other countries? A simple bit of maths shows the answer is no.”
And: “If, as in the case of the UK, a country is already part of a customs union and has already adapted its trading arrangements to it, the case for change has to be overwhelming. It isn’t.
“In short, even the best case outcome can’t be as good as what we have now.”
Then came the job pitch: “If I were a UK negotiator in these circumstances, I would be thinking of bringing stability and predictability in this period”.
Remaining in a coma
His plan seemed to bank on all EU negotiators remaining in a coma for years while the UK – which hadn’t conducted its own trade negotiations for 40 years as he had pointed out earlier – slipped all sorts of stuff such as a “Norway-type arrangement, if only as a staging post” past the dullards in Brussels.
Then hey presto, right after the Brexit referendum, everyone must “stop flapping” about it and realise that this “great country” would be successful “whatever we do” he declared. Now that’s how you get to be a baron in Johnson’s world.
But the baron is running out of road. While his “itchy finger” hovers theatrically over Article 16, which refers to the protocol, attention in Brussels has shifted to more urgent matters elsewhere. Middle England is plainly unsettled. Contrived palaver over Northern Ireland (about which most Brits don’t give a toss) will only distract for so long. Even the most delusional Brexiters are getting a sniff of serious domestic instability coupled with the uneasy sense that no-one is running to help.
But Jenkin got one thing right. “Six months ago, the EU would never have entertained any of the changes they are now proposing. They’re recognising reality,” he said happily. The optics are poor indeed. How will the EU look if the pigeon’s strutting desperation for a win is rewarded again? It’s not only about optics. Bandwidth is being devoured both here and in Brussels that is urgently required for serious issues elsewhere.
Let this be the end of it.