On Brexit, no one quite knows where Boris is taking us

19 January 2020

6:00 AM

19 January 2020

6:00 AM

I am not going to lie: I am bored sick with Brexit. Like so many of you, I have become that frustrated child in the back of the car moaning, ‘are we there yet?’

Boris Johnson won’t tell us. Or at least not in precise terms. So on this marathon journey, just days before we leave the EU in a legal sense at 11pm on 31 January, the final destination can only be deduced, and certainly not with any precision.

What Johnson says he wants, more than anything, is a trading relationship with the EU that returns to the UK a sovereign ability to set its own rules and regulations for business, such as companies’ duties to employees, their environmental obligations, their safety standards and so on.

All this is implicit in the phrase – which the Chancellor in today’s FT uttered as an echo of the PM – that ‘there will not be alignment, we will not be a rule-taker’.

But it means, as a senior member of Mr Johnson’s cabinet told me, ‘there will be friction at the border, we are under no illusion about that’.

This represents the victory of a kind of Brexit purism, vaunted by Johnson and the Brexiters of the European Research Group who carried him on their shoulders into 10 Downing Street, over the compromise Brexit initially negotiated by Theresa May and championed by Michael Gove.

Theirs was a Brexit supposedly designed to half-please the 52 per cent who voted to leave and the 48 per cent who wanted to remain in the EU. May and Gove lost the argument, definitively and decisively.

Johnson’s general-election triumph was an unambiguous mandate – or so Johnson believes, and Gove and Javid concede – for a literal version of ‘taking back control’.

It is important to spell out what this entails and where it does not necessarily lead.

It means that Johnson will not agree to any legally enforceable mechanism for the UK to permanently follow standards set in Brussels for chemicals manufacturers, or food producers or carmakers or the City or any other parts of the economy.

It means government and parliament will have the right to set laws and rules for every sector of the economy.

That means there will necessarily be checks at the border for compliance with EU standards which for some businesses – car makers, livestock and agri-food exporters, chemicals manufacturers – will be onerous. Some may well move plant and people across the Channel, to avoid the new friction at Dover and Calais.

It means the City of London will have to become more global and less eurozone focused.

It will bring costs to businesses – and therefore to all of us, as a result of reduced economic growth and smaller increments in tax revenues available to find public services – than would otherwise be the case.

And for Johnson those costs – which he hopes will shrink as the UK reconfigures its economy to be more broadly international, or more conducive to faster-growing enterprises – are the acceptable price of what he sees as a return to national self-determination.

What it does not mean, he insists, is that the UK will use its enhanced sovereignty to weaken environmental and employee protections. Au contraire, Johnson insists.

You might ask what on earth is the point of taking back control if that control does not in practice lead to significant regulatory divergence from the EU and is very likely to make the UK at least a bit poorer for a few years.

It is an apposite question, asked many times in the referendum campaign of 2016 and repeatedly since in the subsequent years. Intellectually it may still be credible.

But politically and practically that argument was lost when we went to the polls on 12 December (the Tory manifesto explicitly says ‘no political alignment’ – Johnson is only doing what he said on the tin).

That said, greater burdens for businesses trading with customers in the EU is not quite the end of it. The UK has bargaining chips with which to secure limited trading privileges, most notably, access for French fishing boats to UK waters.

And since the UK will simultaneously be negotiating free trade agreements with the US, Japan, New Zealand and Australia, there are presumably ways of calibrating each treaty to better match the shape of our economy.

Even so, despite what many business leaders apparently believe, Johnson is pursuing a relationship with the EU by the end of this year that will be the untying of all apron strings.

Finally, there is something else this so-called ‘proper’ Brexit does not mean, much frenzied speculation to the contrary, namely that Johnson’s Brexit UK will perforce find itself closer to Trump’s America than to the EU.

As one minister told me, ‘the choice is not binary between the EU and the US; there will be times when we are more allied to the EU, other times when we are closer to the US; it depends on what the PM perceives to be the British interest’.

In the non-economic sphere, we saw that in recent days when Johnson positioned himself with Berlin and Paris to put pressure on Trump to dial down hostility to Iran, in the wake of the US assassination of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

Lest we forget, Johnson is much more continentally European than any other recent prime minister. So it is just possible that our journey’s end will be an entente with the EU more cordial and stable than it has been for many of our decades as members of that club.

But we are not there yet.

Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV news blog

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