Deal or No Deal? Brexit Endgame or the End of Britain?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, October 6th 2019

Boris Johnson has finally revealed his Brexit plan with less than one month to his intended exit date from the EU.

Constantly presented as a ‘deal’ by insular British political discussion and media who have contributed so much to fueling Brexit, it is in fact nothing of the sort. It is rather an agreement between Boris Johnson, the Northern Irish DUP, the Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) and what remains of the parliamentary Tory Party. Politics does not stop at the House of Commons or the English Channel despite recent appearances.

What does the supposed Johnson non-deal entail? Is it a real plan or just a diversion and preparation for a No Deal Brexit? And if so, what are the implications for Scotland, for the Scottish Tories implicated in this – and the independence question?

Johnson’s plan is only different from Theresa May’s in relation to the Northern Irish ‘backstop’, which he called ‘undemocratic’ because it was not time limited and supposedly not subject to the approval (or not) of the people of the province. This was full of Tory Brexit hyperbole ignoring that the ‘backstop’ was created by the UK Government, meant to be a temporary insurance policy, and even more critically, that Northern Ireland – like Scotland – voted to remain in the EU, and thus has not voted for any of this.

The details of the plan are that the whole UK leaves the Customs Union, requiring customs checking between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which the UK Government insists can be undertaken away from the border.

There would be an ‘all-island regulatory zone’ for Ireland – North and South – covering not just agricultural goods but manufacturing as well. This would mean checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the mainland of Britain.

Hence, instead of no border being imposed to solve the Irish question, the UK Government is proposing not one but two regulatory borders: one between Ireland and the North, and the other between the North and Britain. Yet, Johnson has managed to square this with the previously hardline DUP.

This is because the plan proposes a ‘Stormont lock’ where every four years from 2021 onward the devolved assembly would decide whether it wanted to continue with EU or British rules. This would require getting Stormont back up and running when it has been suspended for nearly three years. And then, with the DUP likely to remain the largest party for now, it in effect gives them a veto: hence their support.

This offer has been welcomed by the DUP, elements of the European Research Group, and even by some Labour MPs such as Stephen Kinnock: the latter being part of a group of up to 30 MPs from his party who are considering voting for any deal which comes back to the Commons. Whether this is enough to provide a slender parliamentary majority is open to question but more critical is whether it ever comes back to the Commons, as to do that it needs EU agreement.

The EU response has been one of disappointment. The EU Parliament Brexit Steering Group stated their ‘grave concerns’ about the Johnson plan. The Irish government understandably have begun to show their impatience at the amateurish and indulgent actions of the UK Government as the clock ticks down.

Johnson has precluded his plan returning to Parliament for a confirmatory vote prior to agreement with the EU at its summit on October 17th-18th in Brussels. It may never actually be put to Parliament, at least in its current form.

In all this Johnson is playing a game of bluff and apportioning blame in the event of a failure to agree any deal. It is not clear if this plan is a serious offer by the UK, or one being presented to go through the motions and pass the responsibility for blame as much as possible onto the EU – at least for domestic purposes.

Johnson hinted at this when he stated in his Juncker letter about getting a deal: ‘If we cannot reach one, it would represent a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible.’ That was the public line, but in private they have gone further, with a Downing Street memo stating that if talks fail it will be critical to say that Brussels ended them, made a deal ‘impossible’ and that its stance is ‘a crazy policy’.

If a No Deal Brexit came about, either on October 31st or later, Johnson would attempt to blame the EU bureaucrats and their ‘collaborators’ in the British establishment and pro-Remain opinion. Already we have seen the xenophobic tone this could descend into with allegations of a Downing Street inquiry into opposition MPs engaging in ‘foreign collusion’ with the EU.

If the Johnson government cannot get the UK out of the EU on October 31st, Downing Street would go full kilter on being forced by the ‘Remoaner class’ to seek – or have imposed on them – an extension to Article 50 until the end of January.

This is in many respects an ideal background for the Johnson Tories to fight a ‘people versus Parliament’ election which they think would work in their favour. It does also make them worry that such a scenario could leave them with a vulnerable flank, open to attack from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and his charge of ‘betrayal’ against the entire political class minus himself.

At this time of national crisis there is no unity in the opposition parties. The SNP want a vote of no confidence and election as soon as possible having no faith that Johnson will keep his word on anything. Labour want to wait until the outcome of the EU summit and force Johnson to either have to seek, or to have imposed on him, an EU extension – meaning he has to live with the consequences of breaking his promise of leaving on October 31st.

The Lib Dems refuse under any circumstances to countenance Jeremy Corbyn as head of a caretaker administration, thereby killing off any prospect of the non-Tory majority in the Commons becoming, even temporarily, the government.

The Brexit debate has been driven by English sentiments and a reactionary English nationalism. The academic Arthur Aughey has studied the history of the Conservatives and assesses that the party will have to make a choice between remaining a unionist party and becoming an explicitly English focused party, with it being impossible for them to do both.

Such acute tensions within conservatism and the future fate of the union are coming increasing to the fore in senior Tory circles. William Waldegrave, a minister under Thatcher and Major and currently Provost of Eton, has observed that Brexit could lead to a ‘smaller kingdom of England and Wales’ whereby ‘England without Scotland would run the risk of an even worse bout of the disease of English nationalism than has so far emerged around the Brexit debate.’

Such a political dispensation leaves the Scottish Tories high and dry. The majority of its parliamentarians campaigned for Remain and against Boris Johnson becoming leader, but now post-Ruth Davidson have to come to terms with a different world. Jackson Carlaw, ‘interim’ leader, at Tory conference this week made explicit his support for Brexit whether via a deal or No Deal. Such a stance makes Aughey’s distinction between unionism and an English focused politics crystal clear, and it will cost the Tories dear at the next election in Scotland.

The Brexit debacle gives an impetus, democratic argument and moral legitimacy to the Scottish independence campaign. But it also throws up difficult questions. For example, if Johnson manages to scrape together a last minute deal could there be a wave of UK-wide relief which he then cashes in on in a snap election? And a No Deal Brexit, and having to confront the consequences of disaster nationalism, might make voters think they have suffered enough uncertainty and instability for any one period.

Scotland will be greeted by a chorus of goodwill from European politicians, capitals and EU institutions in its attempt to express the pro-EU sentiment of public opinion and the widespread belief in Scottish society that we are an European nation.

But this will involve some difficult choices and home truths for the SNP and pro-independence opinion. These include understanding the limitations of both the uber-radical utopian visions of independence on offer and the lack of dynamism in the SNP’s safety first continuity independence. Somehow we have to be more honest, humane and listening in how we do our politics, and more bold at the same time, recognising that change does not come about by default, but by making the positive case and seizing the initiative at the right moment.