Self-imposed Brexit deadline will determine the era of 'Johnsonism'

Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson - Credit: PA

Rob Davidson of Trade Deal Watch looks at Boris Johnson's Internal Market Bill and says the result of it will determine how history remembers the era of "Johnsonism".

The people of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland are about to pass a terrifying deadline set by our Prime Minister. Boris Johnson proclaimed that we should just “move on” if we hadn’t agreed a Brexit deal by October 15th, ending talks and defaulting to ‘no deal.’ This should be filling us with dread but no one really expects him to end negotiations on the 16th and almost all pundits see the talks continuing into November at least. This is ‘classic Johnson’ – to make a pledge that pleases a well-targeted segment of supporters but that few actually believe and therefore no one holds a grudge when it goes unfulfilled.     

Where people have talked about Thatcherism or Blairism, we may expect one day to hear of Johnsonism. Future adherents to his policies and philosophies may call themselves Johnsonists or Johnsonites much like Brownites or Corbonystas. This early in his career, it may be foolhardy to presuppose to what that will refer but, I believe that we can learn all we need to know from the government’s Internal Market Bill. 

Somewhere in the corridors of Whitehall, a ‘letter of formal notice’ has been received and filed, demarcating the start of the European Union’s legal proceedings in response to our government’s Internal Market Bill. To be sued by your closest and most important trading partner and ally, during your biggest and most important trade negotiations is not, generally, seen as good sign. In Brexit negotiations, that all-important “good faith” has left the building or as Johnson himself might say, it has been defenestrated; it is ‘out the window.’ 

And yet, this potentially devastating breakdown in international relations, threatening not only the UK-EU Brexit negotiations but also future US-UK trade deals, peace in Northern Ireland, and our nation’s trustworthiness and reputation globally, is seen by most as just another piece of theatre: it is, “just Johnson.” 


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The Internal Market Bill effectively repeals promises and commitments that Johnson himself made, via trade negotiations, international treaties, domestic legislation and even as a central tenet of his campaign platform during the recent general election.  

This is “classic Boris” – prior to the EU referendum campaign Johnson starred in a TV documentary making the case for Turkish membership of the EU and then during the referendum he used the threat of “75 million Turks” as a reason to leave the EU. His media-fuelled self-contradiction gave him a dog-whistle to rile more extremist supporters while placating concerns from moderate Eurosceptics.  

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But perhaps nothing typifies this self-contradictory behaviour more than the Internal Market Bill and it’s “ripping up” of Johnson’s own recently penned Withdrawal Agreement. 

There is a basic problem with Brexit and Northern Ireland: you simply can’t diverge on regulations and customs and also keep an open border. Theresa May had once said “No UK Prime Minister could ever agree” to a customs border down the Irish sea, and so May accepted that, in the event of ‘no deal,’ the whole of the UK and Northern Ireland might need to remain in sync with the EU. This is truly the only way to avoid either different treatment for Northern Ireland or a hard border and related problems on the island of Ireland. 

Johnson had vocally and publicly agreed with this both during his Conservative Party leadership bid and during the 2019 general election campaign. And then, Boris Johnson signed into law a Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that did the opposite. Johnson’s deal clearly allowed the UK to “break free” from EU regulations at the very obvious cost of aligning Northern Ireland to a different rule set. Northern Ireland’s DUP were furious at the time.  

Despite the plain facts of his own deal, in January of this year, Boris Johnson was filmed saying once again that there would be no checks between Northern Ireland and the UK – and that film was leaked to the press. In doing so, Johnson was directly contradicting his own Brexit Secretary who had recently and publicly told a hearing committee that there would indeed be such checks. Not stopping there, the Johnson government immediately and publicly contradicted its own Prime Minister. 

This, in effect, is the principle underpinning Johnsonism. Say contradictory things, be contradicted, contradict your self, and make sure the press and media report all those contradictions. That way nothing you say is ever meant, no one can pin you down, no one ever truly believes you and so nobody can ever hold you to account. 

When Johnson was playing both (or all) sides during his leadership bid, his contradictions were widely reported by newspapers that supported, and still support, Johnson. Those being lied to knew it but they also knew that every side was being deceived so how could they feel aggrieved at any one set of lies? How could they even tell which promise was the lie?   

When renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement, Johnson managed to annoy the Northern Irish unionists, the hard-line Brexiters, and the moderates and yet ultimately, all sides are left holding their breath, hanging on to see what he ‘really means to do.’ His deal was barely dry before he was contradicting it, his government was contradicting him and the media were dutifully sharing this lack of clarity with the nation.  

When the Internal Market Bill, the culmination of Johnson’s Brexit and Northern Ireland policies, was then presented to the Commons, Brandon Lewis as Northern Ireland Secretary told the House that the Bill would absolutely break international law. Lewis went as far as to admit later that this had been a scripted answer in line with government legal advice – no off the cuff mistake. Then the Johnson government contradicted their own minister and his script, by having their Attorney General dismiss his statement… and in turn, they contradicted the Attorney General by having the government publish yet another statement saying that the Internal Market Bill would, in fact, “disapply” the international treaty a.k.a. break the law. 

Confused? That’s the idea: contradictions within contradictions. Trying to follow the political announcements from Johnson and his government is like trying to unravel the plotline of the film, “Inception.” Is this bit real? Was that real? Is he dreaming? Am I dreaming this? 

Johnson has done well from his carefully crafted and styled ‘dishevelled’ look and from his long-standing portrayal as a bombastic, colourful and forever-waffling character. His clearly racist or homophobic comments in past journalistic work can be dismissed because he never means anything. Clear targets and deadlines for COVID19 responses can be missed without consequence because he claims they were never really there, they were “aspirations” not actual commitments. Arguing against Johnsonism is like punching a cloud. 

Some might think this is all just Johnson’s idiocy, confusion or incompetence but it is not. Johnson’s honed persona allows him, like Trump, to employ a tactic thatt the film maker Adam Curtis once labelled “hypernormalisation.” Developed by Russia’s famed “illiberal democrat” the tactic of self-contradiction has been demonstrated to help derail and destabilise any opposition, to allow a leader to say terrible things and rile up the worst sort of supporter base while defusing the concerns of moderates and provoking the opposition to shout at shadows. What started in Russia has been franchised out to Hungary, Poland, and more recently to the US and then the UK. 

There perhaps is the worst thing we can learn about Johnsonism, exemplified by the self-contradictory, media circus of the Internal Market Bill. Future adherents to the Johnson philosophy should not be named Johnsonystas or Johnsonites after all. They, like Johnson himself, will in fact be “Putineers.”  

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