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  1. Politics
10 January 2020

Boris Johnson needs to decide what he actually wants from Brexit

The government is approaching the next phase of the Brexit talks with a series of irreconcilable objectives. 

By Stephen Bush

Is power-sharing on the way back in Northern Ireland? The British and Irish governments have brokered a deal that could restore government at Stormont, but both major parties need to agree for the accord to hold.

What’s broken the deadlock? A small part of the credit must go to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, who has won respect across Northern Ireland’s politics in a way that his recent predecessors failed to do, and has signed up to a set of policy commitments at the British end that helped find a way through.

But the reality is that the biggest reason why an agreement may now be in sight is the message that voters in Northern Ireland sent to the DUP and Sinn Féin in the December general election, with both parties punished for their failure to get Stormont working again.

That’s given the space for the party leaderships to agree to a deal that includes much that the DUP said they would never agree to: changes to the petition of concern, which allowed the DUP to veto same-sex marriage, and an Irish Language Act.

It could fall apart if the two parties cannot carry their activist base with them – so the most important and lasting parts of this agreement may be the steps taken by the British government. Parliament will change immigration law so that people living in Northern Ireland have the same rights on family reunion regardless of whether they hold Irish or British citizenship, while it will also legislate to provide unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom.

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That last part is significant, because, to be blunt, it’s not clear how the British government will do that without pursuing a softer Brexit than the one envisaged in the future declaration. While it is an acceptable shorthand to say that Boris Johnson agreed to put a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea, it’s more accurate to say that Johnson accepted that as the baseline, which allows the rest of the UK the freedom to sign up to a Brexit deal that gives the UK a significantly higher level of divergence. However, if the UK as a whole opts to stay within the customs and regulatory orbit of the EU after Brexit, then the need for that border would simply fall away.

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Is that where Johnson is heading? Taken together with Theresa Villiers’s assurance to British farmers that hormone-washed beef and chlorinated chicken are off the menu, Johnson’s government still seems to be approaching the second phase of the Brexit talks as Theresa May’s approached the first: with a series of objectives that cannot be reconciled with each other. Johnson’s majority ought to mean that he can deliver whatever set of objectives he decides he actually cares about, but that the decision still doesn’t look to have been made means it may be a bumpy and fraught set of negotiations between now and December 2020.