Breaking the Union: Brexit, Boris and the Backstop

Analysed too closely, the Tory leadership race and its implications becomes more surreal by the day. Understanding its rules, relating to this, is futile: we can only observe and remark, our noses pressed with disbelief against a window of a strange and distant court that will soon decide our immediate fate.

At this crucial point, we can all agree whatever is coming will mean something for us. The only questions are what, how and when.

The who will likely be Boris Johnson, less probably Jeremy Hunt. Both Eton and Oxford contemporaries: one with ancestral gentry links and powerful media backing, the other the son of a Navy Admiral and Knight of the Realm.

Where we figured on their political consciousness before Brexit is hard to say, but that’s immaterial now. The choice between them will be made by a few hundred thousand Conservative Party members: predominantly white, wealthy, middle-to-southern English, with an average age just below the pensioner range.

The continued Brexit farce has shown us that anything can happen, but Johnson is this very select group’s undisputed sweetheart, and barring a political miracle, will become the third UK Prime Minister in the three years since the Brexit Referendum. That’s really a statement we should all let sink in for a second.

Johnson is famously not a man for detail, and even his best supporters would have to admit his success is based on style, not substance. That, powerful media connections, and a unique, sometimes absurd style, helps him somehow wiggle of out most things, but this time, he may have built a box even he can’t get out of: a guarantee, come hell or high-water, that the UK will leave the European Union on 31 October this year. This is a promise Johnson needed to make to get into the ring, but how he boxes when he’s in there will make or break his premiership by Hallowe’en. That’s a short term for anyone, never mind with so many contradictory positions to appease and competing promises to uphold.

Changing the PM does not of course change the same political realities and landscape in which that PM will have to operate, or make a significant change from the treaty negotiated painstakingly between the EU and the UK over the past three years any more likely. The same Westminster quagmire awaits, the basic intractability of the problem remains, the same interminable cycle of drama and crisis lies ahead.

For all the circus, Johnson may just have wrestled the right to run into the same brick walls as his predecessor. In a political saga not short of ironies, for someone of Johnson’s much-detailed ambitions, to see the true-blue poster boy of Brexit bundled out of office by Christmas could be the biggest one yet.

This is where the DUP may start to get nervous, particularly as the specific details of his plans for getting through the Brexit quagmire have been guarded by Team Johnson as closely as state-level secrets. And yet, unless he is even more of a bluffer than some think, someone like Johnson does not wait all his life for this chance only to dumped out within months, humiliated into political oblivion, and a figure of shame for the knives of future historians. He must have a plan; he must find a way out.

His Hallowe’en promise may not be upheld, but that’s a problem for the future. For now, he has the precious political commodity of space and goodwill, and now over half the party has fallen into his lap: Johnson looks like a winner, and everyone wants to get into his good books. For now.

And yet, someone who often plays the fool is not necessarily always one. Johnson will know that the path chosen by May required unconditional support from ten DUP votes, and the price for that support was ultimately too high: (i) renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement and bin the backstop (ii)  ensure no regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain that the DUP cannot politically live with (iii) translate pretence into a legally operable guarantee to maintain a frictionless Irish border; (iv) free the UK from all the constraints of its enmeshment in the Single Market and Customs Union, and maintaining as many of its benefits as possible.

Looked at it this way, its easy to understand why the Backstop became the only option for May. Her problem, at least in approach, was how poorly she sold it. At that, she was genuinely terrible.

When the rhetoric fades and reality begins, Johnson may come to same conclusion too, but unlike May, may have enough political space, smarts and salesman skills to actually force it through. The cover for this may be some sort of promise or fudge to ensure the DUP’s worst fears won’t happen: some playing up of the expert border commission that has already been set up, buy in from the Stormont Assembly – sold as a “Unionist Veto” – a promise here and commitment to the Union there.

If this does transpire, it is the obvious DUP betrayal, with plenty of room for Johnson to operate around. In time, his buttering-up of the DUP as the star turn at their party conference last year may be seen as classic Johnson: his teams have courted their votes since long before May finally fell, and the reassurances and details given since have reportedly failed to convince.

This week, a leading Johnson supporter prepared some ground on this already by criticising the DUP for “categorically refusing to contemplate the Northern Ireland backstop“, while facing the reality that Johnson’s ascension will give the Conservative Party the opportunity and bounce to “win an election in our own right“, to ensure “the Government is not at the beck and call of the DUP“.

Like so much in this contest, that may too be an empty threat, a detail swamped by the great sea around it. Two early elections in three years is unprecedented, and the Fixed Term Parliament Act makes calling an early election more difficult – but not impossible. And there’s no guarantee this will sway over the significant cohort of ERG “Spartans” who have always rejected May’s deal, regardless the pressure, regardless the consequences.

Then again, May was not stupid, and obviously saw saw some reason to keep pushing that deal through. Eventually, even Brexit bellwethers like Rees-Mogg and Johnson himself ended up voting for it at the third time of asking, soberly citing the need for political promises to be kept and choosing between options “that actually exist“.

As Arlene Foster herself confirmed, the Union ultimately matters more to the DUP than Brexit. For Johnson and most Tories, it’s the other way around, or they are finished as a political party. A further extension may not be forthcoming, and the next pressure point in the Autumn will be even more intense. That may finally sharpen enough minds to get enough Tory and Labour MPs to finally bite the bullet, backstop and all.

It’s hard to predict what a political opportunist like Johnson will do, but at least we can rule out what he can’t. After getting into power by helping to bring May down over her Brexit deal, it’s unthinkable that even he can u-turn enough to suddenly accept a customs union and single market integration for the whole UK, unlimited in time. That means the same narrow redlines as May, and the same Withdrawal Agreement.

What Johnson may change is the optics. It seems reasonable to expect some visible attempt to overturn the agreement: visits to Brussels, looking defiant, talking tough. It may well be futile, but pretence is important, and no British PM will ever lose points doing that. Once that’s over, the next is somehow getting the DUP to suddenly accept the deal, perhaps with various trinkets or cosmetic measures promising ways that NI will never be dislodged from the rest of the UK in a significant way – despite what they claim. However, their hard-line, eye-lids cut-off position that they’ve maintained throughout makes retreat almost politically impossible for them too.

When that fails, and even Johnson’s bluster and star-dust can’t get enough numbers elsewhere, a general election seems the most likely option. This too is not without risk, not least from the Brexit Party splitting their vote far enough for Labour to get in. Yet, it may even be less toxic for the Tories than a second referendum, although then again, Johnson may also see it as convenient cover, with no harm to him in leading a second no campaign again. The irony is the DUP may even agree, given what else is at stake for them. They know without their ten votes, this deal, and the backstop, may well have been through already.

This all just leaves “No Deal”, a policy even leading Brexiteers dismissed years ago as utter madness, but now an almost token threat from all candidates in the campaign as proof of their toughness and Brexit credentials. However, as much as the economic and societal implications on this have been buried, even Johnson would not likely survive if it ever transpired. Indeed, when finally  challenged on it, it appears he is backsliding on that even now.

The news for Northern Ireland in this, whenever it figures, is truly sobering, by any objective assessment. Given that senior cabinet ministers, and even May herself, have indicated that that there is a very real chance that this could finally tip support for Irish Unity into majority status, confirmed by recent polls both north and south, watching how the DUP react if this starts become reality may be the most interesting thing in the Brexit debate here so far.

Ironically, this brings to Britain what is a constant and arguably definitive part of our own local politics: the Union, and whether we stay in it or not. A lot has been made of how awareness of that debate is catching on here, but lesser commented is that in the post-Brexit landscape it has come to the forefront in Westminster too.

Under Theresa May, the union became “precious”, and Northern Ireland became an issue over which the British Government could “never be neutral” as opposed to something it had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in.

For Boris, the Union is a “fantastic four” of nations, the beauty of which is people see us as British regardless, although again, there’s a fair bit of glossing over the details there too.

Michael Gove’s views on the Good Friday Agreement are already well-knowna mortal stain“, “a rigged referendum“, and “a humiliation of our army, police and parliament“: designed to wedge Northern Ireland into the Republic, principle of consent or not. But even more moderate figures are now recognising what all this may mean: from David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy PM, to the Chancellor Philip Hammond. One eye here may be on Scotland, but as Northern Ireland’s centenary approaches, its future appears more uncertain than ever. Westminster now seems to be recognising that fight is now real, and at the forefront of policy at the worst possible time.

The old saying is that a week is a long time in politics.

If that’s true, then the next few months may feel like a lifetime.

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