Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
22 October 2018updated 09 Jul 2021 7:49am

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s big Brexit leak gives Boris Johnson and the media a headache

By Stephen Bush

Jeremy Corbyn has unveiled a leaked Treasury document showing that, despite Boris Johnson’s assurances, there will be customs checks on goods going between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom and vice versa.

His argument is that, as Johnson has already broken his word by putting a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea, we can’t possibly trust him to keep his word on Brexit. Corbyn’s case is unimpeachable, copper-bottomed, seaworthy: whatever synonym for “unarguable” you want, it fits.

But his actual prop to make that case tells us nothing new at all – it is the first official document saying that as well as checks going east to west (that is, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom) there will be checks going west to east (that is, between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland). But that is “news” only in the sense that someone telling you “you have to take the stairs to get to the top of the tower” might tell you that you have to take the stairs to get back down again – it follows inexorably from the first point.

It’s similar to Corbyn’s first big secret document, which only told us what anyone who had looked at the detail of US-UK trade knew: that the only way to have a meaningful US-UK trade deal is to put British agriculture and pharmaceuticals on the table.

For Labour, the two documents are inextricably linked. Labour’s case is that, because Johnson has been shown he can’t be trusted on the customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea, he also can’t be trusted on keeping the NHS out of a US-UK trade deal, or increasing the number of police on the beat, or any other promise you care to name. And again, the policy case here is unarguable: there are, in my view, good political reasons to think that in practice Boris Johnson will never be able to overcome public resistance to breaking these promises. But the pattern across these documents is clear: that policy assurances from Boris Johnson tend not to mean very much.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

While both documents perfectly illustrate the case Labour wants to make, neither document is “new”. But Team Corbyn know full well that the only way to get most of the press, particularly our all-important general interest broadcasters, to cover policy is to add the words “Top Secret” in big shiny letters on it. So after an NHS story that revealed nothing we already know, we have a customs and regulatory story that reveals nothing that isn’t in Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement. Yet without these leaks, coverage of the content of Johnson’s Brexit deal would be even thinner than it currently is.

Content from our partners
Harnessing breakthrough thinking
Are we there yet with electric cars? The EV story – with Wejo
Sherif Tawfik: The Middle East and Africa are ready to lead on the climate

One of the troubling things about this election is that, outside of the specialist press and Sky News, the policy detail of Johnson’s Brexit plan has barely been scrutinised. That matters not just because of the election and how it might change the result but what happens next. Trade policy isn’t, largely, about things that are hidden from view: it’s about the granular detail of things like the withdrawal agreement – the kind of thing that the BBC’s Brexitcast podcast, the most influential Brexit podcast, frequently describes as “nerdy”.

It’s not nerdy – it’s essential, and it shouldn’t require the leader of the opposition to treat things we already know as top secret for it to be covered properly.

Topics in this article :