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11 September 2020

Boris Johnson’s short speech to Tory MPs shows he still doesn’t understand his problem

The Prime Minister’s response to MPs who think he has little time for them has deepened, not eased, their concerns.    

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson has addressed Conservative MPs in a bid to reassure them that the Internal Market Bill is above board and proper, and also, partially, to claw back some of the damage that Downing Street’s poor parliamentary management has done to his government’s standing among backbenchers.

How did he do? Well, on the former, it depends how much Tory MPs want a pretext not to rebel. Johnson’s claim that the Internal Market Bill is a necessary step to prevent a foreign state from dividing the United Kingdom into two regulatory blocs is simply untrue. Since Ireland achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1922, both countries have pursued a degree of regulatory alignment in order to facilitate an open and relatively frictionless border between the two countries. This has been a strategic priority of both states for almost a century.

Of course, for much of that time, other political forces have made the Irish border a heavily militarised one that has been neither open nor frictionless. While the regulatory and customs alignment brought about by the creation of a European-wide regulatory and customs area in 1993 helped further facilitate an open and frictionless border, it was only through diplomacy and the Good Friday Agreement that the benefits of the 1993 treaty could be achieved.

So the United Kingdom has three choices as it leaves the European Union: a soft Brexit that maintains a soft and frictionless border on the island of Ireland without erecting a new border in the Irish Sea, a hard Brexit that maintains a soft border on the island of Ireland by creating a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea, or a no-deal exit that creates a hard border on the island of Ireland, which means no trade agreement with the European Union or the United States.

That is not the result of either the European Union or Remain campaigners making trouble, despite what both Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings believe. It’s a simple consequence of the fact that the only way to remove barriers between states is regulatory alignment. This is why Ireland and the United Kingdom had – and have long had – a greater degree of regulatory alignment with one another than required by their shared membership of the European project.

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So what Johnson is saying about the necessity – or indeed the efficacy – of the Internal Market Bill is not true, but for a Conservative MP who wants a line to take about why they are voting with the government, he has provided one.

But Johnson has done nothing about his other problem: the perception among Conservative MPs that he and his Downing Street care very little about them, will never promote the vast majority of them and that they should therefore rebel freely.

Speaking to MPs on a Friday night and not allowing questions from them only underlines that perception. And the belief that Downing Street not only doesn’t do parliamentary management, but regards its own backbenchers as beneath its time, will continue to place limitations on the government’s legislative agenda well beyond Brexit.