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11 October 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 9:15am

We forget to reckon with Boris Johnson’s lack of political principles

At times like this, it's worth remembering that Johnson will do anything that's in his own best interests.

By Ailbhe Rea

Yesterday was a little embarrassing for political journalists, not least myself. Columns and weekly publications of all stripes went to press in the certainty that no deal was forthcoming from Boris Johnson’s unworkable Brexit proposals; I (in the good company, at least, of most commentators) wrote in our Morning Call email that Johnson and Leo Varadkar would almost certainly fail to make a breakthrough in their meeting in the north-west yesterday. As I so confidently put it:

My best guess is that nothing will come out of today’s mysterious summit. This is much more about Varadkar being seen to work constructively with the UK, in anticipation of a bitter blame-game, than any serious chance of a deal.

Brexit comes at you fast.

Here we are, one day on, with a “pathway” to a Brexit deal in sight, according to the two leaders, and Michel Barnier having been given the green light by the EU27 for “tunnel” negotiations.

What did we get wrong? Firstly, it’s worth adding the proviso that these positive noises may still come to nothing; it remains advantageous for the EU to be seen to work constructively with the UK, and the option remains open to Johnson to turn around from these intensified talks and slam the EU for intransigence.

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In most of the important ways, the consensus that the pair couldn’t achieve a breakthrough yesterday was the right one: Johnson’s Brexit proposals and Varadkar’s position on Northern Ireland made for two fundamentally irreconcilable positions on customs, and figures in both the British and Irish governments were playing down any hope of a breakthrough.

What we got wrong was failing to reckon with Boris Johnson’s sheer lack of firm underlying political principles. Yes, he has been firm that the backstop would be unacceptable. Yes, he appointed himself “minister for the union” in a show of ostensible commitment to not breaking up the UK. Yes, he and his team have staked their political careers on delivering Brexit. All of those commitments are, however, not the product of deep ideological conviction on Johnson’s part, but simply functions of his political context.

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Boris Johnson is the man who famously wrote two letters before the Brexit referendum, one backing Remain and one backing Leave. Everyone loves to trot out that anecdote, but forgets what it means for our current political situation. He ultimately doesn’t care. He’s a pragmatist. He wants political success and he will go for the option that gets him there. In the referendum, that meant backing Leave, even though he went a deathly shade of pale upon the realisation that they had actually won. In the leadership campaign and in the early days of government, that has meant making all of the right noises about Brexit in preparation for an election where he will try to unite the leave vote: bringing some of the most Eurosceptic backbenchers into the cabinet, staring unflinchingly into the abyss of no deal, and compiling Brexit proposals that were backed by the ERG and (surprisingly) the DUP, but that would be wholly unacceptable to the EU.

Now that Johnson and Varadkar have brokered the beginnings of a workable deal, it looks like pragmatic Johnson is out again. It’s easy to get swept away by the fiery rhetoric from Downing Street in favour of no deal, but my own view is that that cannot be what Johnson or his advisers really want; a deal is always preferable to the long-term electoral hit that the Conservatives would take after the fallout from no deal was felt across the UK. We don’t know exactly what Johnson and Varadkar discussed to achieve a glimmer of a breakthrough, but we know that Varadkar, or any Irish leader, would never compromise from his position on customs and the Irish border. The concession, therefore, looks to have been on the UK side, and probably looks in practice like a border down the Irish Sea.

Johnson can see 21 ex-Tory MPs dying to have the whip restored, 19 or so Labour MPs begging for any workable deal to vote for, a dependable chunk of Conservatives who voted for May’s deal, and a eurosceptic wing of his party that is broadly behind him and wants to deliver Brexit. Don’t tell the DUP, but Johnson is not ideologically wedded to that party’s position of maintaining the integrity of the UK’s internal market, and may be prepared to move quite substantially on the issue. It would be tight, but Johnson would be very likely to have the numbers in the Commons for an arrangement like that even without the DUP’s support; depending on the exact arrangements, the DUP may not even object. The only limiting factor on Johnson’s capacity for compromise is whether he can keep the Brexiteers in his cabinet, his party and in the country behind him. But given the groundwork he has laid, he probably can.

At times like this, it’s worth remembering that this is a politician driven by self-interest and a propensity to self-mythologise.  Boris Johnson wants a grand Churchillian moment, and no deep ideological positions are holding him back.