Boris Johnson is treating the public like fools over Brexit and Northern Ireland

The Prime Minister cannot credibly distance himself from a Brexit deal that he hailed as a negotiating triumph.

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Martin Hammond, Boris Johnson’s housemaster at Eton, once wrote that his former charge “believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the obligation which binds everyone else”.

Nothing has changed. Three decades later British courts routinely rule that Johnson and his government have broken laws. They illegally prorogued parliament to thwart opposition to Brexit. They have acted unlawfully by preventing asylum seekers from working, locking up cross-channel migrants in a Kent barracks, failing to publish details of lucrative Covid contracts and handing a £560,000 market research contract to friends of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. The Good Law Project is now going to court to challenge Johnson’s award of a peerage to Peter Cruddas, a Tory donor (who gave £500,000 to the party three days after taking his seat), despite opposition from the Lords Appointments Commission. 

Most egregious of all, however, is Johnson’s refusal to honour the Northern Ireland Protocol – a refusal that led to his collective mugging by Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel at the weekend’s G7 summit in Cornwall’s Carbis Bay.

Astonishingly, Sunday Telegraph editor Allister Heath excused this flagrant breach of international law last week by claiming that Johnson had signed the protocol “under duress”, adding: “Unjust law isn’t real law; and to repudiate this illegitimate nightmare to salvage peace in Northern Ireland would not damage our reputation for being a law-following society.”

In a similar vein, the arch-Brexiteer Daniel Hannan wrote in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph: “No self-respecting country should tolerate a situation in which internal trade barriers are maintained on its own soil by an overseas power, and in which a chunk of its population is partially subjected to foreign rule.”

I seem to remember the Telegraph and other sycophantic right-wing newspapers hailing the protocol, and the Withdrawal Agreement of which it was part, as a triumph for Johnson’s hardline negotiating strategy, and as a major milestone on the road to Britain becoming a proud, free, sovereign nation once again.

Be that as it may, the idea that we were press-ganged into signing the protocol is manifest nonsense.

Yes, in late 2019 we faced intense pressure to resolve the Northern Ireland problem quickly, but only because Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had foolishly triggered the Article 50 mechanism – which set a two-year deadline for leaving the EU – without any sort of agreement within her government on what Britain’s negotiating goals should be. 

May subsequently sought to avoid creating a damaging new border, either on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea, by proposing that the whole of the UK remain in a common customs territory with the EU until a better solution was found. Johnson not only rejected that “backstop” solution but resigned as foreign secretary, claiming it would reduce Britain to “the status of a colony”.

Johnson succeeded May as Prime Minister in July 2019, promising Unionists there would be a border down the Irish Sea “over my dead body”. Three months later he agreed to exactly that, then won a general election by pledging to “Get Brexit Done” with his “oven-ready deal”.

Johnson is probably right to complain that the EU is enforcing the protocol too zealously, and he will doubtless boost his domestic standing with his jingoistic vow “to do what it takes to protect the United Kingdom’s territorial integrity” against the bullies of Brussels. It may also be the case that our notoriously cavalier leader did not fully understand the implications of the protocol – or chose cynically to disregard them. 

But the fact remains that Johnson freely and voluntarily negotiated the protocol with the EU as the least bad solution to an intractable problem, had it ratified by parliament (albeit with minimal scrutiny), and solemnly signed it into British, European and international law because it suited his political purposes at the time. 

If EU leaders are now choosing to enforce that protocol to the letter, that is their prerogative and an outcome that any responsible prime minister should have foreseen. 

Indeed, Johnson has done much to foment the EU’s uncompromising stance with his nationalistic bragging, gratuitously offensive remarks about Brussels, and provocative appointment of the serially antagonistic David Frost (yes, he who wore Union Jack socks to Carbis Bay in an act of supreme puerility) as his point man on Brexit’s implementation.

The proverbial chickens are now coming home to roost. On the eve of the G7 summit the United States, supposedly our closest ally, issued an unprecedented and humiliating reprimand to the government over its refusal to honour the protocol. 

Johnson’s perfidy marred a three-day summit that was supposed to be “Global Britain’s” coming-out party, as European leaders ganged up on him. It rendered hollow all those bold pronouncements in the new US-UK “Atlantic Charter” about upholding “the rule of law”, strengthening “the institutions, laws, and norms that sustain international cooperation” and working “through the rules-based international order”. It gave the lie to Johnson’s boastful portrayal of Britain on the summit’s eve as “the buckle that fastens, the hyphen that joins everything together”, demonstrating instead how it is squandering international trust, respect and influence.

Worse, Britain now faces the very real danger of a damaging trade war with the EU, by far our biggest export market, unless Johnson backs down and agrees to honour the protocol. Conversely, if he does enforce it, he faces the very real prospect of a summer of loyalist violence in Northern Ireland that could well imperil the Good Friday Agreement. Too late, the Prime Minister may come to realise the limits of his “cakeism”.

The summit was hardly a triumph. The photo ops and headline-grabbing announcements failed  to disguise the lack of substance. But Biden’s arrival in place of Donald Trump did at least suggest that Western multilateralism is back in vogue, and made the populist, go-it-alone nationalism of Johnson’s Brexit look like yesterday’s fashion.

[See also: The UK’s Brexit stance is doing serious damage to its relationship with the US]

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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