By Alex Callinicos
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Johnson faces a crisis—but he isn’t finished

This article is over 4 years, 4 months old
Issue 2677
Boris Johnson in parliament on Saturday

Boris Johnson in parliament on Saturday

To use the Churchillian language Boris Johnson likes to ape, he may have lost a battle last Saturday, but he hasn’t lost the war. This is true of both his Brexit deal and his ambition to win a general election.

The deal first. There are two key elements. The first concerns the European Union (EU) demand that Britain’s departure doesn’t lead to a hard border dividing Ireland.

Theresa May sought to solve this problem by agreeing that the whole of the United Kingdom would remain in the EU customs union till a long-term trade deal was reached.

That kept Britain too closely aligned to the EU for the Brexiteer ultras. Johnson solved this problem by caving into Brussels’s original proposal, which was that only Northern Ireland in effect remain in the customs union.

This has been softened by saying that it will also be part of the British “customs territory”.

But the fact remains that Northern Ireland will have a different status from the rest of the UK that links them to southern Ireland and the EU.

This was anathema to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), desperate to put off a united Ireland, which is probably why May rejected it. Johnson instead threw them under the bus, though he tried to sweeten the pill by offering more money for the Six Counties.

The hard Brexiteers in the Tory Party didn’t utter a peep. Yet one of their leaders, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a few months ago called the DUP “the guardians of the Union of the United Kingdom”.

The reason has mainly to do with the second main change in the deals. The EU’s main preoccupation, apart from hoping vainly that Brexit will be reversed, has been to ensure that Britain remains locked into its trade regulation regime.

EU leaders have been increasingly vocal about their opposition to a “Singapore on the Thames” with weaker labour and environmental regulations undercutting their firms.

May’s deal kept Britain effectively bound to the EU regulatory regime.

If Labour responds by campaigning for a second referendum to choose between Johnson’s deal and staying in the EU, it will be walking into a deadly trap

The Tory right didn’t like this because a “Singapore on the Thames” closely aligned to the US under Donald Trump is exactly what they want. So Johnson after becoming prime minister dropped May’s commitment to maintaining a “level playing field” in trade regulations with the EU.

EU negotiators forced him to back down on this. But the version of this commitment that he signed up to is less legally confining than in May’s agreement. Hence the promises Johnson made to those Labour MPs gullible enough to consider voting for his deal (11 did) to maintain labour and environmental standards.

Anyone who thinks they can rely on his promises should talk to the DUP.

Johnson lost the vote on Saturday precisely because so many MPs don’t trust him. So he has been forced under the so-called Benn Act passed a few weeks ago very grudgingly to request a postponement of Brexit beyond 31 October.

But the reassurance that a no-deal Brexit now—probably—can’t happen could tip the balance in the House of Commons in favour of the deal.

EU leaders will—again, probably—grant some kind of postponement. But the Remainers who demonstrated last Saturday and who fondly dream that the EU will save them from Brexit are kidding themselves.

As the commentator Wolfgang Munchau put it, “Continental European chancelleries see Mr Johnson as the big beast of British politics right now. They will need him as a political ally beyond Brexit.”

Whether Johnson really is “the big beast of British politics” depends on the general election that surely must happen soon. His aim is clear—to wrap the ultra-Thatcherite dream of a deregulated Britain in the Union Jack and posture as the people’s champion against Parliament.

If Labour responds by campaigning for a second referendum to choose between Johnson’s deal and staying in the EU, it will be walking into a deadly trap.

Labour’s hopes of victory lie instead in its economic programme that begins to map out an alternative to neoliberalism. This is a very dangerous political moment.

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