The toxicity of the British government’s ongoing Brexit (re)negotiations has surfaced again with the creaking mess that is the Northern Ireland Protocol. Lord Frost’s latest speech, ‘Observations on the Present State of the Nation’, once again recalls whimsically the ghost of Edmund Burke, the godfather of conservatism. But substantially it attempts to lay blame for current failures at the door of the EU.
Frost’s central claim is that the ‘key feature of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is balance – between different communities and between their links with the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. That balance is being shredded by the way this Protocol is working. The fundamental difficulty is that we are being asked to run a full-scale external boundary of the EU through the centre of our country, to apply EU law without consent in part of it, and to have any dispute on these arrangements settled in the court of one of the parties.’
Objectively, of course, Frost has a point. But critics are left scratching their heads given that this was the agreement that he put together and celebrated just a few months ago. Moreover, opponents repeatedly highlighted the dangers to the settlement in Northern Ireland. That is, outside the single market, the border has to go somewhere and it is either between the Republic and the North, or it runs down the Irish Sea. For political expediency, Boris Johnson and Frost chose the latter, disingenuously claiming there would be frictionless movement and trade. They also chose the hardest of Brexits, leaving Britain outside of not only the Single Market but also the Customs Union. Northern Ireland was subservient; sacrificed to the bigger populist calling.
Consequently, there are two compelling reasons why senior Ministers – from Lord Frost, to Dominic Raab to Boris Johnson himself – continue to snipe at Brussels more than five years after the referendum and approaching two years since the withdrawal deal was done. The first is that very truth that is hard to miss: this was presented to the electorate as an ‘oven ready deal’. Critics were dismissed as doing Britain down or wanting Brexit to fail (which in fairness some of them probably did). To acknowledge that what was agreed no longer works (or never did), requires the mud-slinging to deflect blame away from the government itself. And this places the EU in an unenviable position since any ground given on their part is met with the populist response that ‘they could have given us that when we left’. Goodwill becomes some kind of proof that Brussels has until now been wanting us to fail; that this is some sort of battle between us and them. And in that it continues one aspect of the culture war that proved so electorally successful in 2019.
Frost got one thing right, however, and that brings us to the second reason for the continued sniping. He told his audience in Portugal that ‘there is no electoral dividend in endlessly talking about Brexit – quite the reverse. That is why the PM barely mentioned it in his Party Conference speech last week.’ In this he must be reflecting on the audacious electoral strategy pulled off by Johnson and his then adviser Dominic Cummings in 2019. Not only did they grab traditional Labour seats in the Midlands and North of England to land an 80 seat majority, but they did so deploying the simple campaigning slogan of ‘Get Brexit Done’. That slogan was so powerful politically because rather than promising a good deal, rather than engaging in the arguments about how damaging different Brexit scenarios might be, it did something more compelling: it promised a weary electorate that a vote for Johnson’s Conservatives would put the issue to bed at last. That too was disingenuous and so the ongoing fallout has been met with an inevitable tabloid response.
Unlike Burke, these populist radicals are more hellbent on riding the chaos than preserving the traditional institutions of the ‘good society’. They have been no more sensitive to the fragility of the Northern Ireland settlement than they have to the traditions of Parliament, which Johnson attempted to prorogue, or the institutions of the judiciary which were undermined as ‘enemies of the people’. The failure to ‘Get Brexit Done’ could pose political risks to the government and that is perhaps why, even where it genuinely wants to revisit the Protocol, constructive discussions remain undermined by point-scoring and political attack.