Leading article

Boris won't be forgiven if he caves on Brexit now

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

It now looks increasingly likely that lockdown will end on 2 December, after all. The decision to impose further restrictions was taken in the belief that the number of infections was growing fast. It now seems that the number of new infections was, instead, falling and that Boris Johnson’s regional restrictions were working. Had he waited a week for the figures to settle, the Prime Minister may well have been able to avoid lockdown. He will, no doubt, be feeling a bit raw about the quality of data and advice supplied to him — but it will now be easier to justify not extending what he rightly referred to as a ‘shattering’ second lockdown.

News from America about the Pfizer vaccine means Johnson can instead focus on general recovery — and the opportunity for a new start will be a successful deal with the European Union. This is the mission he was elected to accomplish, this is the drama that has defined British politics for the past five years. We are weeks away from a denouement. Yet still the chances of a deal remain 50/50.

There is a real risk that the EU will — once again — misread the British political mood. It’s true that the Prime Minister has been bruised by recent events and has ended up making a series of U-turns: on exams, lockdowns and free school meals. But he is well aware that Brexit is an existential issue for him. Voters in the north of England have no great love for the Conservative party and many only voted for Johnson because he pledged to deliver a clean Brexit.

This time last year, he ran a government with no majority — a government that necessarily had to make more compromises than he would have liked to reach a preliminary deal. The result was the protocol for Northern Ireland whereby, as of 11 p.m. on 31 December, it will come under the jurisdiction of the EU’s single market rules. So in the absence of a new agreement, food coming from Great Britain will be subject to border checks. At the time, it was argued that this was a technicality and would never amount to a genuine threat to the integrity of the country. Now, it is throwing up complications.

We are approaching the Brexit deadline, yet there is no clarity on how to keep regulatory checks to a minimum. This is having real-world implications: Sainsbury’s has said it will struggle to resupply its stores in Northern Ireland without clarifications. Marks and Spencer has said its costs will be higher. It takes something for the DUP and Sinn Fein to make a joint statement on anything, but this week Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill wrote a joint letter to officials in Brussels complaining about the uncertainty. But as they found out, if there is a chink in a Brexit deal, it will be exploited.

This serves as a warning to the Prime Minister now: any vague wording in a subsequent deal — or a system in which disputes are judged by the EU’s own apparatus — will guarantee further trouble. To give in now, for the sake of a short-term political fix, will ensure longer-term problems. The electorate gave Johnson a mandate to walk away if he cannot negotiate a decent deal. He will not be forgiven for caving now.

The EU has been admirably robust in its negotiations. From the outset, Michel Barnier made it clear that he was going to take a firm approach. There was speculation on the Continent that Joe Biden’s presidency would weaken Britain’s hand, and make a US trade deal less likely. As it turned out, Biden’s first phone call to a European leader was to Boris — and the American press reported that Biden did speak of the ‘special relationship’.

Sir John Major was wrong this week to argue his country is dwindling in the eyes of the world. The British electorate may be disappointing him in its recent decisions, but British friendship is valued across the world — especially in America. It is sorely needed in France, which is why Johnson should do more to support Emmanuel Macron in his new battle against Islamism. And we should extend a hand of friendship to the EU as we agree a new deal — while insisting on a partnership in which each respects the sovereignty of the other.

A deal with Brussels would start a new phase of co-operation — urgently needed when all of Europe, both inside and outside the EU, faces a second wave of the pandemic. Who now has the stomach for the trade barriers or the border chaos of a no-deal? But what Brussels must understand is that the Prime Minister cannot buckle on this issue, even if he were minded to. Voters gave him a majority of 80 precisely so that he can stand firm on his promise of delivering a clean Brexit. And on this, at least, he has the clear support of his party.

Britain is ready to reset the relationship, end the years of haggling and become the EU’s most powerful ally. With so much at stake, and the boundaries so clearly defined, no more time should be lost in setting the terms for this new relationship.

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