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23 January 2020

Despite the EU withdrawal agreement passing, Boris Johnson is still repeating Theresa May’s mistakes

The Prime Minister ended this phase of Brexit as his predecessor started it: with a series of irreconcilable promises.

By Stephen Bush

That is it, the end: parliament has voted to formally enshrine the Withdrawal Agreement Bill into law and the United Kingdom will leave the political structures European Union on 31 January, when the next phase of Brexit – the negotiations on the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the EU – will begin.

And once again the United Kingdom is negotiating to the backdrop of a ticking clock. The first date to watch is 30 June; if the British government wants to extend the transition period beyond 31 December 2020, this is when extra time will have to be sought. The reality is that because the government has a large majority, there will be no extension request on or before 30 June, so the second half of the year will be defined by the countdown to exit on 31 December.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit myth relies on the idea that the ticking clock helped the United Kingdom in the first phase of the talks, since, for various internal political reasons, the story of the Brexit talks can’t be that the British parliament argued with itself for three years before belatedly deciding that it could live with a border down the Irish Sea after all. It must instead be that thanks to the ticking clock, the European Commission was forced into conceding a new deal. (That the new deal looks an awful lot like the Commission’s original proposals for the Irish border is neither here nor there.)

Johnson ended this phase of Brexit as Theresa May began it: with a series of promises to MPs that cannot be reconciled with one another. He told Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s new Westminster leader, that Northern Ireland would have unfettered access to Great Britain’s markets after Brexit, while telling Amanda Solloway, the MP for Derby North, that after Brexit, the British government would have the freedom to diverge on VAT on sanitary products.

The Brexit trade-off – and indeed the trade-off in any modern free trade agreement, with whomever you strike it – is simple: you exchange regulatory freedom for market access. The more of the former you are willing to dispense with, the more of the latter you get. Johnson is still talking as though a high-divergence, high-access trade deal is possible – and more importantly, his government’s spending plans rest on the idea that it will be.

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While there are big spending increases in train for the police, the NHS and schools, outside of those funding settlements, the room for additional spending is limited and will become more so as tax revenues fall. Remember that the government has committed not only to keeping debt flat or falling but to doing so while leaving income tax, value-added tax and corporation tax flat or falling too. The outcome of the Brexit talks cannot be separated from the ability of the government to maintain its electoral coalition in the country or to deliver for the constituencies that voted Tory in December.

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One way that the 2017 election result helped both Theresa May and Boris Johnson was that it offered an excuse to back out of some Brexit promises. For May, it allowed her to fudge her red lines on the United Kingdom’s trade policy after Brexit, while for Johnson, it allowed him to retreat on the Irish border. But there’s no blocking parliament, no perfidious John Bercow this time. The government will either have to openly retreat from its ambitions on Brexit or its commitments on spending.