There was a revealing moment in the House of Commons a moment ago: Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland Secretary was taking questions that were notionally about the continued absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, but quickly spread to cover the Brexit deal and its arrangements for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.
One intervention was particularly striking: from John Redwood, the committed ultra-Brexiteer MP, who referred to the discontent about Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal’s provision for the Irish border, and asked Smith why the government didn’t just bring forward the EU-UK free trade agreement, which would fix the problem.
There is just one problem: the final EU-UK trade agreement, however it is negotiated, will not resolve the problem with the Irish border or anything like it. That was the major victory and/or concession Boris Johnson made: the provision to keep Northern Ireland within the regulatory and customs orbit of the EU is forever. It will endure not just in the absence of agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union, but even following a free trade agreement between the EU and the UK. The prize that Johnson has won in agreeing that is that he can sign a far looser trade agreement with the EU, allowing him to pursue a far more radical and economically disruptive Brexit for England, Scotland and Wales than he would be able to for the whole of the United Kingdom. But the price is that Northern Ireland remains permanently within the EU’s orbit, and if Johnson secures the meaningful divergence he craves for England, Scotland and Wales, the barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom will only grow.
Far from fixing the problem, a free trade agreement – at least one that meets Redwood’s desire for meaningful divergence – will exacerbate it.
Smith did as good a job as anyone could have managed at dodging the question by saying that the matter was not for him, but it speaks to a looming problem for the government with its deal. It has been greeted as a triumph by pro-Brexit Conservatives – but so was Theresa May’s December 2017 agreement, which ensured that the European Commission declared “sufficient progress” for the talks to move onto the future relationship part of the Article 50 process. These Conservatives were privately and publicly dismissive of critical articles by some Brexiteers and by articles from policy wonks pointing out the problems with May’s accord – until the end of 2018, when they realised that they in fact agreed with these criticisms.
If Downing Street is lucky, it won’t matter if a similar process takes place with Boris Johnson’s deal, because by October 2020 there will have been an election and the Conservatives will have a large enough majority to ignore the likes of John Redwood. But what if they don’t? What if this Parliament passes the Brexit deal without a murmur? What if the election results in a hung parliament, as some polls suggest it still might? Boris Johnson has already emulated Theresa May in one crucial respect: he achieved a major victory in the EU negotiations by making a pretty big concession and packaging it as victory. If he’s unlucky, he might live to complete the homage.