Boris Johnson has launched another broadside at Theresa May’s Brexit policy, on the eve of the Conservative Party conference which promises to be a rowdy one for the British prime minister.
Johnson, the ex-foreign secretary and ardent Brexiteer who resigned in July over May’s proposals, has outlined an alternative plan in a 4,600-word article for the Telegraph.
It appears designed to put maximum pressure on the prime minister to change course. It’s also an attempt to galvanise supporters of a so-called “hard Brexit” and answer his critics, not least Downing Street, which has accused Johnson of having “no new ideas”.
May’s “Chequers plan” is hugely unpopular among grassroots supporters of the ruling party, pro-EU supporters, and its central thrust has been rejected by EU leaders.
Turning his guns firmly on the government of which he was a member for two years, Boris Johnson warns that “at this rate” the hopes of voters who opted to leave the EU “will not be fulfilled”.
Brexit talks, he says, had been approached with an “utter lack of conviction” where the UK had “meekly accepted” EU proposals. Such an “invertebrate performance” had brought the “enforced vassalage” of Chequers, “legal servitude” in being obliged to follow EU rules without any say, and leaving the UK “half-in, half-out” of the bloc. A “democratic disaster”, says Johnson, “the worst of both worlds”, “a moral and intellectual humiliation for this country”.
What is in Johnson’s plan?
The “right solution”, argues the former London mayor, is a “SuperCanada” free trade deal “at least as deep as the one the EU has recently concluded with Canada”. This would involve:
- Zero tariffs and zero quotas on all imports and exports between the UK and the EU
- Mutual Recognition Agreements on standards which “should be easy to draw up”
- Modern technology to overcome red tape and enable just-in-time supply chains to continue, outside the customs union
- More flexibility than current EU rules on procurement allow, with close collaboration on competition and state aid — short of adopting the EU rulebook on the latter as envisaged in Chequers
- Extensive provisions on services, opening up all sectors, with “maximum possible mutual recognition of qualifications”
- Specific provisions on data — with the EU recognising UK equivalence — and on aviation where “it should be relatively straightforward” to negotiate membership of the EU area
- A process for recognising rules as equivalent, and a dispute mechanism for managing divergence with the UK and EU as “legal equals”
- “Extensive and intimate” intergovernmental cooperation on security, counter-terrorism, foreign policy and defence
Criticism that a Canada or SuperCanada style deal would bring a new Irish customs border, or contravene the 1998 peace accord, is dismissed. Johnson cites an Institute of Economic Affairs report he has already backed, with options including customs checks away from the frontier, existing trusted trader schemes, and other “pragmatic” and “practical” trade arrangements.
After “two years of dither and delay”, Johnson outlines what he believes the UK should do.
He calls on the government to “chuck Chequers”, and ditch the Irish “backstop” arrangement agreed last December – which he admits would involve a new exit agreement that would be a “difficult step”.
A political declaration should be agreed, pointing towards a SuperCanada-type deal – and the UK should not pay its £40 billion (45€ billion) divorce bill without such an accord.
Practical preparations should be made for leaving the customs union, and work accelerated on the “remote” possibility of “no deal”. Far from bringing chaos as peddled by “Project Fear”, this would bring “basically banal questions of bureaucratic procedure”.
Negotiations on global trade deals should begin next April immediately after Brexit, Johnson says.
What’s been the reaction?
Much of Boris Johnson’s article contains familiar rhetoric, blasting the EU as a “superstate with no real democratic control” and praising British voters for their “good judgment” in opting to leave.
Brexiteer allies have praised his article. Ex-minister Steve Baker called it “brilliant, pivotal”; Bernard Jenkin called it “unanswerable, powerful”.
However, Johnson’s attack on Theresa May’s Chequers plan is not new, and his critics say there is nothing new in this champion of Brexit’s alternative proposals either.
Trade analyst and former government adviser David Henig accused him in a tweet of living in a “child’s imaginary world where you can just ignore inconvenient facts”. Disputing Johnson’s key assertions, he said mutual recognition would need much trust building, would be hard to achieve in services, and recognition of “equivalent” rules would not be possible if the UK then diverged.
In a critique for Business Insider, Adam Bienkov writes that Johnson’s Irish border solution “merely restates his wish to create as-yet non-existent technological solutions”. He accuses the Brexiteer of failing to explain how a Canada-style deal – involving a looser trading relationship with the UK’s largest market – could benefit the economy and health service, as promised.
Going further, he says Johnson fails to explain how more stringent border controls with the EU would work — and adds that few other major industrial nations trade solely on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, as Brexiteers envisage under a “no-deal” scenario.
The Telegraph’s Europe Editor, Peter Foster, argues on Twitter that such criticism “misses the point” as Johnson’s document is political rather than technical.
“My bet is that — judging from the reaction to Chequers — Boris’s ‘rip it u and start again’ narrative will be persuasive to the vast majority of folk who don’t follow the detail, don’t want to accept or understand the conundrums posed by Ireland etc,” he writes.
That is something that Boris Johnson may well have in mind when he addresses supporters at the Conservative conference in Birmingham next week — the night before Theresa May’s flagship speech which looks more difficult by the day.