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10 September 2020

How Boris Johnson has laid the foundations for multiple crises in December

While many in Westminister still believe the Prime Minister is aiming for a Brexit deal, Downing Street's expressed aims suggest otherwise.

By Stephen Bush

No border protocol, no party: that’s the message from Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House. She has warned that in the event that the British government unpicks or walks away from measures designed to ensure the continuity of an invisible, frictionless border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, there is no prospect of a US-UK trade deal being passed by Congress. 

That shouldn’t be surprising – Robert Lighthizer, Donald Trump’s trade representative, told a Congressional committee in June that there would be no point negotiating a US-UK trade deal if a hard border returns to the island of Ireland. 

It’s worth noting that, as written, the Internal Market Bill would not prevent the emergence of some new barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom – which is one reason why the European Research Group is, per Sky News‘s Sam Coates, calling for the government to go further in banning east-to-west checks.

It is far from clear that the current iteration of the Internal Market Bill can even pass parliament. It would struggle to make it through the House of Lords unscathed and it is not certain that this Downing Street’s parliamentary management is up to the task of repelling multiple amendments in the House of Commons. 

If in reality Boris Johnson secretly wants a deal, he has the votes to pass one, because the choice before the opposition parties will be between Johnson’s deal and no-deal. They’ll have no leverage to improve the terms of the deal – the could avert no-deal only by facilitating the passage of Johnson’s deal, whether through abstention or active support.

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But does the Prime Minister want a deal? In Brussels the number of people who think so is in sharp decline after this week’s developments, while in Westminster many worry that Johnson is just posturing. Some Leavers fear another betrayal – that the Prime Minister will use the theatre of a high-stakes, last-minute deal to smuggle in a swathe of concessions. And other Conservative ministers use the idea that it is all bluff to privately justify remaining inside the government. It’s possible that both those groups are right. It could come to be that just as Johnson previously claimed his embrace of the European Commission’s original plan to put a border in the Irish Sea as a British diplomatic triumph, he will in December be hailing an accord that compromises on state aid and fishing as a great victory against the European Union. 

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But if you look at the detail of what the government is demanding in terms of state aid, and the fight that it is picking with both the EU and the US over Northern Ireland, it seems to be making a virtue of reducing its wriggle room. Downing Street’s expressed priorities can be met only through a no-deal Brexit – as it stands, we have no reason not to take that seriously. The possibility that we will end the new year in the grip of multiple overlapping economic, parliamentary and health crises is a real and dangerous one.