Congratulations to David Frost on leading his team of negotiators in an historic diplomatic operation which will give him a well deserved foot note in history. And there is a lesson in government for Boris Johnson too. If you test a policy to destruction before making a decision you are more likely not to have to make an embarrassing U turn later. It was how Margaret Thatcher tried to operate.
But what does this agreement mean? Obviously, it’s too early to say. Realistically I suspect that it is neither a great triumph nor a terrible disaster and will keep the wheels on the economy. Best look at it like a George Osborne woolly jumper budget. Great sound bites, cheering back benchers, a Pavlovian Fleet Street, until somebody picks at a stray piece of wool and the jumper begins to unravel. There will be a hot pasty moment. The only question is when. My instincts that it will be about security and financial services. But it will not be fatal. If I was a backbencher I would vote for the bill. But.....Parliamentary scrutiny will be negligible. I suspect that the biggest rebellion will be on the Labour side.
As in all successful negotiations everyone must be able claim victory. Brussels can claim that they have protected the single market and kept a level playing field and we can crow that we have taken back control of our sovereignty, our waters and our laws. And there is a modicum of truth in all of this. There has to be as most of the political arguments are totemic. The UK wants to trade with the EU and they want to trade with us. That’s the easy bit. The tricky business is how to persuade French and British fishermen that they haven’t been betrayed and how to make it clear to the 27 that disentanglement from the EU project will be a time consuming nightmare.
It is not an unreasonable assumption that our withdrawal will be regretted by the 27 because of our political input. Our veto was always a reassurance to those who didn’t want a federal state. If the commission is still hell bent on this long term power grab there will be trouble from countries such as Poland, Bulgaria and Romania whose adherence to the rule of law is dangerously on the slide. Let us not forget that nationalism is rearing its unpleasant head once again. And over here too. Opinion polls show that 58% of Scots want independence. Northern Ireland, despite promises to the contrary, is being treated differently to the rest of the UK. They are effectively still part of the EU with an invisible border in the middle of the Irish Sea. The Irish government has pulled a blinder by paying for Northern Irish people to have their EHIC cards and still be part of the Erasmus programme. There will be loyalist unrest. There could be serious trouble. And if there is a border poll....
The Union has never been in more peril. Does Johnson have a strategy to save it. I haven’t a clue. I hope that he has. If not his footnote in history will not be delivering Brexit but dismantling the United Kingdom.
Boris Johnson deserves his moment in the sun. But it will only be for a moment. The pandemic has now become a proxy for Brexit. Many of the same purists believe that masks don’t work. That tiers are destroying the economy. That children must go back to school at whatever cost to health. This is where the real Parliamentary trouble lies. And it is growing.