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8 July 2021

The Brexiteers never took the Irish border seriously – and it shows

Dominic Cummings’ contemptuous reference to officials “babbling about Ireland” shows how casually Leavers dismissed the implications of Brexit.

By David Gauke

“We did the referendum, come on, you’ve got to do it and it’ll be great fun to smash all those ***** again”.  According to Dominic Cummings, this was the concluding argument that Boris Johnson used (“not exact quotes but close”) to persuade him to work in 10 Downing Street.  As one of the many ***** who were smashed, I found the account both fascinating and depressing.

According to Cummings, Johnson – on the cusp of becoming prime minister – declared that he couldn’t see a way through the Brexit impasse, didn’t understand how Whitehall or Westminster worked, recognised that he was not good at all with the details, didn’t know what to do with the negotiations and feared that he was going to be the shortest-lived PM in history. In other words, having won the Tory leadership on the basis of delivering Brexit by 31 October 2019, Johnson did not know how he was going to do it.

At which point, our hero (think “tough, maverick cop who breaks all the rules but gets the job done”) steps in. “I’ll have to be in charge, you’ll have to do exactly what I say, we’ve got to do whatever it takes” (not exact quotes but close), says Cummings.  Johnson agrees and the rest is history.

Some might think this account is a little self-serving, although Cummings can claim that his approach delivered a Conservative majority and Brexit when neither outcome was certain in July 2019. 

Some might also think that there is more than a little bitterness directed towards the Prime Minister who subsequently concluded that Cummings was, after all, dispensable. “He was, in any objective sense, unfit to be PM”, “he lies — so blatantly, so naturally, so regularly — that there is no real distinction possible with him, as there is with normal people, between truth and lies”, “he routinely says and does things so foolish that people are open-mouthed”, “the idea of planning and sticking to something that causes trouble now for gains in a year or two? Does not compute…”, he has no “interest in either policy or governing for [its] own sake”. The criticisms are certainly strong but, to be fair, they are commonplace observations within the Westminster bubble. And the description of Johnson as someone who has moments of self-awareness and ruthlessness is more nuanced than many accounts of the Prime Minister.

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But there is a line in Cummings’ piece that is worth picking up. It reveals much about the thinking of many Leavers at all stages in the Brexit story, including today. When describing the assurances he sought and obtained from Johnson – that he was “deadly serious” to do “whatever it takes” – Cummings writes that “when officials start babbling about Ireland, the union, the rule of law and what not, we just keep bulldozing”.

[See also: How Brexit changed us: The Tory party is almost unrecognisable now]

As a former Lord Chancellor, I particularly object to the dismissal of the importance of the rule of law. As a unionist, the cavalier attitude to the future integrity of the United Kingdom is dispiriting. But the failure to take the issue of Ireland seriously is particularly worth dwelling upon.

The Northern Ireland “trilemma” was little understood at the time of the 2016 referendum but can be simply put. You can have customs and regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU. You can avoid a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. And you can avoid a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The UK government could choose two of those outcomes but it could not have all three. Divergence required a border somewhere.

These concerns were dismissed by Vote Leave when John Major and Tony Blair raised them during the referendum. In Theresa May’s cabinet, some Leavers tried and failed to demonstrate that this was a false choice, while Johnson did not even engage, believing that the issue was a ruse to prevent a proper Brexit. It was just officials “babbling”.

May took a different view. She would not accept a border in the Irish Sea (terms which “no UK prime minister could ever agree”) and recognised that a border on the island of Ireland (the default if no deal could be reached) would undermine the peace process.  She made a choice and agreed a Brexit deal that did not deliver the divergence many Leavers sought. Large parts of the Conservative Parliamentary Party – including Johnson – blocked the deal, provoked a crisis and forced her resignation.

In office, Johnson then sought a new deal that somehow avoided the trilemma but without any credible proposals that the EU were ever going to accept. We were destined to leave the EU on 31 October without a deal. Parliament intervened to stop this so Johnson agreed to the border in the Irish Sea because at least that got Brexit done. But he did so in bad faith – without any intention of honouring his commitments.

That brings us to today. The government still refuses to accept the reality of the Irish trilemma and, in turn, the terms of the deal to which it agreed. Our relationship with the EU is fractious and unstable.

Cummings’ account of the Prime Minister’s inability to understand the detail or make decisions rings true. But when it comes to the casual dismissal of the implications of Brexit for Ireland, the Prime Minister was clearly not alone.

[See also: Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are heading for a dangerous showdown]