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JAMES BALL: Who will Boris Johnson choose to betray next over Brexit?

Boris Johnson faces an inevtable backlash over his failed 'oven ready' Brexit deal. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Boris Johnson’s ‘oven-ready’ has blown up in his face, writes JAMES BALL. Every path in front of him now involves betrayal.

Never let this prime minister cook you a meal. A mere 10 months after running a successful election campaign promising an ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal backed by ‘all 635 Conservative candidates’, Boris Johnson has decided his own deal is half-baked.

As a result, the government is now threatening to change UK law in order to unilaterally alter the agreement – a position it acknowledges would break international law, but only in a ‘very specific’ and ‘limited’ way. As defences go, this is rather like arguing that murder or bank robbery are ‘very specific’ crimes and then expecting to avoid jail.

This absurd situation is, however, just the most visible aspect of the dire predicament facing the prime minister: whatever course of action he takes next, it will involve betrayal – and it will be him doing the betraying. The only question is who he forsakes first, and how serious the ramifications will be for the rest of us.

Perhaps the best-case scenario would be that Johnson is just using the threat of rewriting parts of the Northern Ireland protocol as a tool to help him secure a negotiated free trade agreement with the EU. He might hold the (almost certainly mistaken) view that it will serve as leverage in those trade negotiations, and has calculated that such tough talk will help to fire up the most Eurosceptic of his backbenchers.

Such a tactic, though, would end in the effective betrayal of that faction of the party, since an agreement with Brussels will only be secured if it involves some concessions on state aid and product standards.

In this situation, Johnson would face a backlash from his aggrieved backbenchers which he could probably safely ignore, given his sizeable majority and the long wait until the next general election.

What he might also face in the event of such concessions – and find harder to ignore – would be the return of Nigel Farage, perhaps under yet another new party flag, building a ‘Brexit betrayal’ narrative over the coming years that would undermine the Conservative vote.

In the short term, Johnson’s life would get more complicated still in that even under a free trade agreement – secured by making concessions – goods entering and leaving the UK will still face additional checks and border rules. So come January, we would still likely see substantial disruption and queues of lorries across Kent.

This would make the prime minister’s attempt to sell his deal as fantastic or (inevitably) ‘world-beating’ would quickly become mired – and it would be hard for him to successfully pin the blame on the EU, given he would, just weeks before, have been boasting about the deal he had just agreed.

Betraying his Brexiteer backbenchers might be the best outcome of the current standoff, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good outcome – either for the British public or for Boris Johnson.

That leaves him with two other options and two other betrayals: leaving with no deal, and leaving with no deal having broken international law over Northern Ireland’s special trading arrangements.

The first option would be a betrayal of Britain’s voters: no matter how often defenders weakly argue that the ‘oven-ready deal’ referred only to the Withdrawal Agreement, most Conservative voters in 2019 surely felt the prospect of no-deal was off the table as a result of the breakthrough last autumn.

Throughout the year, Johnson has promised a straightforward trade deal and return to sovereignty.

If the government abandoned its attempts at a deal, the consequences would quickly become clear. While even an exit with a free trade agreement would cause severe disruption, a no-deal departure from the EU would put huge strain on society, in the midst of a pandemic. Brexit voters would have good reason to feel betrayed – they would soon learn that warnings were not just Project Fear after all – as would the broader population.

The temptation for Johnson would be that in this situation he could try to pin the blame on the EU, saying Brussels was punishing Britain (rather than just merely doing everything it said it would do all along) and try to frame the outcome as plucky Britain thwarted by its nasty neighbours, rather than a country creating a huge self-inflicted disaster.

The result would be chaos, and what would come next remains a complete mystery. After all, no-deal is not a destination, merely a waypoint, and not a happy one. The UK would still want to seek a deal with the EU, and would continue to suffer, possibly acutely, until it did so.

The EU, meanwhile, would be fully aware it had even more leverage in this situation than it has now, and so would force the UK to the table on its own terms. How long would Johnson wait before engaging in a U-turn – effectively betraying himself?

Johnson’s third option, and the most baffling, is to pass a legislation amending – in UK law only, not international law – the Withdrawal Agreement to give the country increased decision-making power in the event of no-deal.

It is virtually impossible to see the upside of doing this. The government’s rationale is that the current situation was unforeseeable when the deal was passed a year ago, but this doesn’t pass the laugh test.

The Withdrawal Agreement was all about trying to find an arrangement to ensure there would be no border on the island of Ireland, even if the UK and EU arrived at no trading deal – the exact situation we are facing.

The UK is very clearly trying to violate an international treaty it ratified within the last 12 months. This would essentially mean Johnson was betraying his own government, by sinking his own deal, the EU, and any country with which the UK would wish to make an agreement. Why do a deal with a proven liar?

The ramifications of this would go far further than Brexit, though. It is a core principle of the UK’s ministerial code that ministers must abide by UK and international law. It is both constitutionally and morally vital that the people responsible for making and administering laws find themselves bound by them.

With its ‘technical’ and ‘very specific’ breach of the law, the government would risk upending the UK’s fragile and unwritten constitution – something which can be broken within weeks but would takes decades to rebuild.

The PM’s operating style for the last five years has been to escalate every fight, brush off every concern, and to turn every issue he possibly can into a culture war – his is the ultimate frat boy government, chasing off anyone who might stop the party, however raucous it gets.

But morning always comes, and with it the hangover, the damage assessment, and the consequences. Nothing Johnson says or does will change that. Everything he’s blustered about for years becomes real from January 1, 2021.

All he has the power to do is shape whether that gets ameliorated with a
deal or made far worse by his chaotic actions. What’s worrying is that he either doesn’t understand that, or doesn’t accept it.

Every path in front of Boris Johnson involves betrayal and will, in time, involve recriminations. That’s the result of four years of impossible promises.

The question facing the rest of us is who, when the time to decide comes, will Johnson choose to sell down the river?

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