Article Published September 9th, 2020

One of the more optimistic interpretations placed by some commentators on Boris Johnson’s crushing victory in the General Election last year was that his new large majority would make it easier for him to negotiate rapidly and effectively with the European Union in 2020. His large majority, it was hoped, would allow him to ignore the most extreme demands for these negotiations from the most extreme of his backbenchers in the European Research Group (ERG). The government’s willingness, announced brazenly in the House of Commons yesterday, illegally to break the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) with the EU, should be a salutary corrective to such illusions.

In truth, the ERG has never gone away. Its ideas and attitudes have long since become those of the vast majority of active members of the Conservative Party, an essential factor in the undermining of Theresa May.  It would be impossible for Boris Johnson, even if he wished to, to take disciplinary action against the ERG’s members in the same way as he did last year against Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve and other pro-Europeans. The ERG and its ideas enjoy limitless access to the columns of the newspapers read by Conservatives. Major television channels give substantial coverage and credibility to such views and their proponents. Even more importantly, the Conservative Parliamentary Party contains today only a handful of uncowed MPs who would have the conviction and confidence to take any effective stand against the radically Eurosceptic policies advocated by the ERG. Central among these policies is the repudiation or at least revision of the Withdrawal Agreement which was according to Johnson himself so decisive an element of the last General Election.  The admission of Sir Brandon Lewis that the government was prepared to break international law in its incorporation of the WA into British domestic law is a clear and reprehensible first response to this mounting pressure from the ERG.

Why did the ERG accept the Withdrawal Agreement?

It was surprising to some observers that Boris Johnson was able last year to persuade the most implacable Eurosceptics in his Party that they should accept the Withdrawal Agreement he had negotiated. It was after all, essentially the Agreement negotiated by the despised Theresa May, with the addition of a regulatory and Customs frontier in the Irish Sea. Even on a superficial reading it could be seen that this Agreement represented a significant segmentation of the UK’s internal market and allowed important scope for legal intervention by the European Union in the economic life of Northern Ireland. It might have been expected that these features of the Agreement would have been wholly unacceptable to many Conservative MPs.

It is now clear that such reservations were overcome by disingenuous assurances from Conservative Ministers that the Withdrawal Agreement could and would be rapidly superseded by a generously wide-ranging new EU/UK trade agreement that would render the WA a dead letter. It was part of the shared mythology between Johnson and the ERG that Theresa May had been a uniquely weak negotiator with the EU and a more robust Johnsonian approach in 2020 would ensure a favourable outcome to the negotiations, sweeping aside the troublesome provisions of the WA. It was on this basis that many Conservative MPs swallowed their objections and loyally supported Johnson’s effusive advocacy of his “oven ready deal.” In giving such assurances to the ERG, Johnson was certainly reckless, as they were naïve and unprincipled in accepting them. But little lies have long legs, and Johnson is now being confronted with the consequences of his nonchalant undertakings at the turn of the year.

Does Johnson want a “deal?

Much ink has been expended in recent days as to whether the Prime Minister and his government are resigned to, or actively want, or are trying to avoid a “no deal” Brexit. There are certainly differing views within the government. The palpable incompetence of the Prime Minister himself moreover makes it difficult for his government to steer any clear line, as exemplified by the contrasting initial reactions from government sources to the story in the Financial Times revealing that the government intended to break international law in its UK Internal Market Bill. But even as far as Johnson himself is concerned, it is probably difficult to attribute to him any clear-cut position.  He must be aware of the enhanced economic dislocation a “no deal” Brexit would cause and an agreement with the EU which he could present to the courtier press as a diplomatic triumph would be welcome indeed. On the other hand, any realistically achievable agreement is unlikely this time to pass muster with the ERG and its sympathisers. The EU continues unwilling to grant the UK favoured access to its own large market without sovereignty-constraining guarantees from London and will insist in all circumstances that the WA remains in force.

Johnson knows his personal and political position is much weaker now within the Conservative Party than it was a year ago. If he can be depicted by his opponents within the Conservative Party as having made unacceptable concessions to the EU in order to avoid “no deal,” his tenure of office will be short indeed. At least two senior Cabinet Ministers in Gove and Sunak are already emerging as favoured candidates, both of whom ironically are said to be leaning away from a “no deal” outcome. Whether this attitude of the two potential challengers would persist if Johnson’s position were under threat as a result of the “deal” he had negotiated with the EU must be questionable. In the past twenty-five years the trend of the Conservative Party has been regularly to elect more Eurosceptic leaders than their predecessors.

Which way will Johnson jump?

Johnson finds himself in a personal and ideological labyrinth within his Party from which he will find it difficult to escape. It cannot be said too often that politically the easiest solution for him in the short term is that of “no deal.” Little in Johnson’s career suggests that he operates politically in anything other than the short term. The only long term goal to which he has shown any tenacious commitment throughout the years is that of his eventual Premiership. Events of the past few days show how uneasily aware he is that his Premiership could be jeopardised by an outcome to the Brexit negotiations rejected by his Party.  As ever since 2016, the Brexit negotiations have been taking place and will continue to take place essentially within the Conservative Party, not between the EU and the UK. The role allocated to the EU is simply that of a frustrated onlooker. The patience of the EU has been commendable since 2016. There must however come a point where that patience runs out and we may well be nearing it.