Boris Johnson has won a great victory – by retreating. He’s managed, at least for now, to unify his party around proposals that are functionally identical to the backstop arrangements proposed by the European Union, put a regulatory border down the Irish Sea – permanently, rather than as an insurance policy – and all he’s got in return is the ability to radically diverge on regulation and customs in England, Scotland and Wales.
The thing is, that’s a pretty big “all”. It means that the post-Brexit United Kingdom (excluding Northern Ireland) has secured the possibility of significant regulatory freedom from the EU – and with it the possibility of a significant loss of trade with our nearest trading partner. It means the potential for deep and meaningful trade deals with far-off countries – but it means treating Northern Ireland a little bit more like a far-off country, too.
The most important element may be that the UK-wide backstop meant that the next phase of negotiations would have taken place without the threat of a cliff-edge on the EU’s perspective, because in the absence of agreed solutions, the whole of the UK would have fallen into the backstop. Instead we will be once again negotiating with our back to a cliff – but with the potential for the UK to spend the time meaningfully building the necessary infrastructure, at least.
Is that success? Well, if you’re in the European Research Group, I think so, yes. But if you’re in the Democratic Unionist Party, no, palpably not.
It’s definitely the essence of successful trade policy – Johnson achieved his triumph by abandoning Cumming-esque rants about decisive victories over Ireland and the Remainers, and instead finding areas of mutual advantage and interest. And if this deal passes – and given that Labour looks unlikely to withdraw the whip from Labour rebels who vote for it, its chances look fairly good – then the ability to find mutual advantage and interest will become the core of our future prosperity.
But is our political discourse capable of engaging with those trade-offs and challenges? Watching the TV news, where the Brexit process is being flattened into an argument about who won, and who lost, I’m not convinced that our political debate about the realities of Brexit or its aftermath is as developed as we might hope.