Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Should Boris Johnson blink at 'no-deal' Brexit, the backlash could be as big as the backstop

If Boris thinks that winning over Conservative members is tough, wait until he has to renegotiate the 'confidence-and-supply' deal with the DUP after backsliding on the border, writes Jon Tonge

Guest speaker Boris Johnson at the 2018 DUP annual conference in Belfast’s Crowne Plaza hotel
Guest speaker Boris Johnson at the 2018 DUP annual conference in Belfast’s Crowne Plaza hotel
Arlene Foster
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Prime Minister-elect Boris Johnson - that's assuming the Conservative members don't take a dim view of late-night domestics - was unusually reticent during the rounds of voting among Conservative MPs for the party leadership.

Normally ebullient and garrulous, reticence replaced rhetoric. As lesser Conservatives scrapped for the silver medal, Johnson said little.

Boris now must finally open up to members at endless hustings. Nonetheless, we can be grateful that Northern Ireland has been the recipient of his most explicit exposition of what a Boris Brexit will contain.

Amid the jesting and the crowd-pleasing ("My fellow unionists") and reminders of the alleged IRA sympathies of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and the man he ousted as London Mayor, Ken Livingstone), Johnson's 25-minute oration at the DUP conference last November articulated the Brexit position of the likely next leader of the country to an extent not seen before, or since.

It's a speech well worth revisiting, not least for the lack of wriggle-room Johnson afforded himself.

In his repeated demands to "junk the backstop", there was no talk of merely time-limiting the arrangement. Binning, not circumscribing, was the language. The backstop had to go.

Johnson claimed in vindication that Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, "has said that technological solutions exist", meaning the backstop's close alignment of Northern Ireland to the EU was not needed to manage the border.

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No supporting Barnier quotation was provided and, as the man himself was not present (not a regular at DUP conferences), it would be interesting to discover when his statement was uttered. Boris did once lose his job for simply making things up. Just saying.

Our probable next PM offered a critique of the EU's special status treatment of Northern Ireland as strong as anything emanating from the DUP. It was "very, very clever that the EU made Northern Ireland its indispensable bargaining chip" - and not in a good way.

The backstop meant "the birth of a new country - UKNI - no longer ruled by London, or Stormont".

With EU control and a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland would become "an economic semi-colony of the EU, damaging the fabric of the UK".

And in words that make positional retreat particularly hazardous, Johnson insisted that "no British Conservative Prime Minister could, or should, sign up to such an arrangement".

What is Boris's plan? It's not true to say that Johnson has no idea what his Brexit would entail.

Indeed, he offered a clear outline. The issue is more of workability than clarity.

He wants to "bank what is sensible" in the EU Withdrawal Agreement.

This involves generosity in the mutual rights of citizens, the recognition of qualifications and maintenance of benefits.

A "super Canada" free trade agreement, comprehensive in scope, is the Boris plan, Johnson arguing, wildly over-optimistically, that this could be concluded by the end of 2020. There would be zero tariffs and no quota restrictions on UK-EU trade.

At the DUP conference, Johnson urged the withholding of "half of the cash we are about to pony up" until this free trade deal was done.

Given that he is now talking of withholding any divorce payments, the Boris position appears to have hardened.

A Secretary of State for WTO Withdrawal would be created. I'm sure Michael Gove would be keen to serve.

Boris implored people to "stop treating Brexit as a plague of frogs, or an adverse weather event". After all, the EU's "signature project is the Euro", which had left "35% of Greece in poverty".

Even allowing for conference grandstanding, Boris's pro-Brexit and anti-backstop avowals were quite something. Retreat from fundamentalist positions is always possible - St Andrews 2006, anyone? - but if PM Boris blinks at a "no-deal" Brexit and bows to, rather than bins, the backstop, it would be a humiliation given all the preceding bellicosity. The backlash will be as big a problem as the backstop.

His own party conference in Manchester at the end of September could change from coronation to calamity. And a second consecutive Belfast gig in November would be out. Johnson may end up spilling more than red wine at his girlfriend's flat.

Jeremy Hunt might do an Iain Duncan Smith and become the second person in a Conservative Party leadership contest to trail in all ballots of MPs and still win the crown.

And, in moving seamlessly from Remainer to Leaver in three short years, the Foreign Secretary has already achieved a remarkable political shift beyond what Johnson might have to manage.

Watching this blue-on-blue battle with interest is the DUP leadership.

If Johnson and Hunt are finding Conservative members tough, wait until they try to renegotiate the "confidence-and-supply" deal with Nigel and Arlene after backsliding on the backstop.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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