Boris Johnson is right. Brexit is like the Tube – and that’s why his plans don’t work

The clue is in the word “gates”.


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There’s a particularly arresting remark in Boris Johnson’s leaked speech to Conservative Way Forward about the Irish border and frictionless trade:

“It’s the 21st century. You know, when I was mayor of London… I could tell where you all were just when you swiped your Oyster card over a tube terminal, a tube gizmo. The idea that we can’t track movement of goods, it’s just nonsense.”

It’s a more colourfully expressed version of the idea floated by some Brexiteers that technology and “trusted trader” schemes can do away with the Irish border problem and allow continued frictionless trade between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

There is a lot to criticise here, but the biggest problem should be obvious to anyone who has travelled on the London Underground or used any of the Oyster type contactless travel systems that have since spread around the country and indeed the globe. Ticket gates are a form of infrastructure – the clue is in the word “gates” – and they are not frictionless.

Pre-registered travellers and holders of travel cards – “trusted traders” if you will – can cut down on some queuing but not all, and you still have to have checks. That even goes for relatively open barriers, such as those on most London Overground stations, where commuters don’t have to go through a closed barrier but can, in theory, simply walk past without touching in. To avoid losing revenue, Transport for London employs ticket officers who patrol the Overground line checking people’s Oysters and contactless cards – just as in a trusted trader system you still have to employ some enforcement officials.

The reason why this is a problem is that the problem of the Irish border is not just economic, though it does pose serious economic difficulties for the minority of trade between Ireland and the United Kingdom that occurs via the land border. The primary problem is that border infrastructure will be the target of political violence and will risk re-opening the political conflict in the region.

Now, of course, you can declare, as Johnson has done elsewhere in his speech, that the tail is wagging the dog, and that the risk to the status quo in Northern Ireland is a risk worth taking in order to have the full freedom of life outside the European Union.

But to do that you have to engage with what the actual objections and problems of leaving the customs union are, not engage in fantasies about the Oyster Card.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.