If even he doesn’t believe the Tories have got Brexit done, who will?
BORIS Johnson is back. Not that he ever really went away. Downing Street was hoping the slick spin surrounding Rishi Sunak’s self-styled ‘decisive breakthrough’ on the Northern Ireland Protocol would cow their would-be nemesis into silence.
No such luck. ‘I just want to point out purely for accuracy, when I stepped down we were only a handful of points behind the Labour Party,’ he said in an early unsubtle swipe at his successor.
There had been reports Johnson would use today’s speech to ‘tear apart’ the Prime Minister’s deal. But in the end he simply subjected it to some forensic unspinning.
He had ‘mixed feelings’ about it, he said. He understood political momentum was behind it. But as currently constituted he would find it ‘difficult to vote for it’.
In the next few days Johnson’s opponents will paint his intervention as a toxic combination of sour grapes and Machiavellian manoeuvring.
Bitter that Rishi has secured concessions that remained tantalisingly out of the former prime minister’s grasp, they will frame his speech as a crude attempt to undermine Sunak and pave the way for a dramatic comeback. And there will be some truth in that. Boris Johnson never does anything without an eye to what is in the best interests of Boris Johnson.
But his critique has validity. It’s correct that without the Sword of Damocles of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill hanging over them, it’s unlikely EU officials would have been as willing to move as far as they have in accommodating the UK.
He was also correct to identify that it was the EU – not UK grandstanding – that created unnecessary tensions within Northern Ireland. Angela Merkel had reportedly told him his stance risked precipitating ‘a Shakespearean tragedy’.
But the fact that the EU have agreed to dismantle such a significant proportion of the bureaucracy monitoring trade across the Irish Sea demonstrates that their claim that it was vital to protect the integrity of the single-market was always just hot air.
And he was equally right to point out that – despite Sunak’s jubilant words – elements of that bureaucracy remain. The fact that trading forms now require 20 data entry points rather than 80 may not represent the negotiating triumph that was projected in the House of Commons on Monday.
Earlier in the week some had claimed Rishi Sunak’s deal represented the end for Boris Johnson’s political ambitions. It’s true that he has been forced into something of a retreat. Yesterday’s was not the speech of a man preparing to take sceptical Tory Brexiteers over the top in a glorious charge against his own Government.
But those who think any hopes of Johnson returning to No 10 have been extinguished are wrong. Tory MPs were never looking to him to be the man who would transform their political fortunes through skilful renegotiation of arcane treaties. And they will have detected flashes of the old Boris humour and magic sprinkled throughout his address.
Boris has also exposed flaws in Sunak’s operation. A number of Tory MPs are becoming concerned the deal has been overspun and No 10 hasn’t been honest about the concessions in the small print.
THEYalso feel there has been an attempt to rail-road them into backing it. One potential rebel who spoke to the Prime Minister after the announcement of the deal told me ‘the trouble is he’s talking to people about this like they’re eight-year-olds. It’s so patronising’.
But the biggest problem isn’t that Sunak is talking to his MPs as if they’re children. It’s the way the entire Tory Party is now talking to the voters as if they’re children.
The most significant phrase in Johnson’s criticism of the deal was the following: ‘It’s not about taking back control.’
But he, and his colleagues, have spent the last three years telling the British people precisely the opposite. We were told repeatedly that we had indeed taken back control. We were told the final agreement with the EU was ‘oven ready’. We were told the Government had finally ‘got Brexit done’.
Now the voters are being informed – by Boris Johnson, the granddaddy of Brexit himself – that’s no longer true. That there is still an EU ‘drag anchor’ on Britain. That the dream of Singapore on Sea is being stifled. That we are still having to, in Boris’s own words, appeal to the EU to graciously allow us to do what we want in our own country.
And that is the true significance of today’s speech. If even Boris Johnson doesn’t now believe the Tories have got Brexit done, why should anyone else?