New British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has assembled a staunch Brexiteer cabinet in order to push Brexit negotiations over the line before 31 October, a date that he says the UK must leave the EU by, deal or no deal. Odrán Waldron examines the new cabinet and how they are likely to look upon Ireland and the backstop.
“A time limit is not enough. If an agreement is to be reached it must be clearly understood that the way to the deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop,” Boris Johnson told the Commons in his maiden speech as Prime Minister. “For our part we are ready to negotiate in good faith an alternative, with provisions to ensure that the Irish border issues are dealt with where they should always have been, in the negotiations on the future agreement between the UK and the EU.”
Johnson immediately painted himself into a corner but did so with the kind of nod and wink bluster anyone familiar with him will have grown accustomed to. To enter negotiations on the backstop, whether in good or bad faith, would require the EU to completely scrap their position of the backstop being a non-negotiable aspect of the withdrawal agreement. As far as the EU is concerned, the backstop will never be “junked” as Johnson has previously demanded; as far as Johnson’s stated goals are concerned, everything rests on such a junking.
If Britain’s conduct in the Brexit negotiations has been typified by this kind of polite yet stubborn act, demanding that the EU bend to their will in order to enter good faith negotiations, Johnson’s cabinet has been handpicked to feature the Conservative Party’s politicians most fluent in such behaviour and most committed to the deliverance of Brexit on 31 October.
By appointing Dominic Raab as his Foreign Secretary and de facto deputy, Johnson has signalled to the hard-line Brexiteers that he is serious about delivering Brexit; Raab is so committed to the ultra-Tory vision of Brexit (no backstop, favourable trade deals and immigration curbed) that he resigned from Theresa May’s Government in protest at the terms of the draft withdrawal agreement. There was just one issue with Raab’s resignation; having been the Brexit Secretary, he had been in charge of the negotiations that delivered the draft.
Raab has already flubbed his lines when it comes to Ireland, saying that the British Government would not do anything that would lead to a customs border in the “Red Sea”. A Brexiteer since day one of campaigning, Raab has said that the leave vote has given the Government a mandate to leave without a deal if needs be, despite his repeated insistence during the campaign that achieving a deal with the EU would be a simple matter.
The promotion of Sajid Javid, from Home Secretary to Chancellor of the Exchequer, is another indication of Johnson’s wishes for Brexit and beyond. Javid has been described as an “arch-Thatcherite” whose original support for remain may have been rooted in learning the lesson of his political idol. Thatcher’s position as Prime Minister and Conservative leader began to seriously wobble following her “No. No. No” speech aimed at the EEC.
His ardent free market politics and, perhaps, what those of his ilk would see as Thatcher’s prophetic warnings about a European super-state have led to Javid expressing regret for campaigning for remain. Javid has pledged a further £2 billion to no deal contingency planning of late and has said that he believes the British economy would emerge “stronger” in the event of no deal despite it suffering its first contraction since 2012 with 31 October looming.
Javid’s ideas to solve the backstop impasse have included paying the Republic of Ireland “hundreds of millions” of pounds; he has also called Ireland the “tail that wags the dog” while making the point that cordial relations must be kept in order to negotiate constructively.
His successor as Home Secretary is Priti Patel, who was sacked from her position as Secretary of State for International Development in the May Government after it was revealed that she had held unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Westminster, New York and the Israeli-occupied Syrian territory of the Golan Heights. Patel is a lifelong Eurosceptic, having left the Conservative Party in 1995 to join Referendum, a single-issue party dedicated to agitating for an EU membership referendum. She returned to Tory circles shortly before Referendum was dissolved in 1997.
Patel is most notably known in Ireland for having suggested that May’s Government “press home” the issues that Ireland was likely face in the event of a no deal Brexit as a means of exerting pressure. One of these threats is, of course, food shortages, and in this context, it was taken that Patel was advocating the threats of food shortages against a country whose population still hasn’t recovered from the Famine of 1845-1850. She has defended herself, claiming that the comments were taken out of context and that she wasn’t specifically referring to food.
In Michael Gove, Johnson has a Chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster who is a rarity in the British political elite: someone who takes an active interest in Northern Ireland at times when the DUP aren’t needed to prop up a Tory government. Gove campaigned for a leave vote and his opposition to the Good Friday Agreement, which is the key to not allowing the British Government to run roughshod and do as they please with the border, was placed on record by a 2000 pamphlet produced for the Centre for Policy Studies named The Price of Peace: An analysis of British policy in Northern Ireland.
Therein, Gove referred to the Agreement as a “humiliation of our army, police and parliament” that was “designed to lever Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom”. In 2016, he defended his writings, saying that he believed that the Good Friday negotiations should have been handled differently. More recently, Gove has called the EU “wrong and sad” over their refusal to re-enter negotiations with regard to the backstop.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that Gove retained support within the DUP during the Conservative leadership race, given the party’s historic opposition to the Good Friday Agreement. Recent comments by party leader Arlene Foster about how it is “very important” that the UK leave the EU on 31 October and that the UK “should have left by now” will disappoint anyone expecting the DUP to lobby for a majority in Northern Ireland where the border and backstop are concerned.
It may be time, given Foster and the DUP’s repeated demands that there be no divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, that we stop taking her and her party’s stated opposition to a hard border — only avoidable through the backstop that they have rejected for the divergence it creates — at face value.
What they have said about Ireland and Brexit
“Why isn’t he [Taoiseach Leo Varadkar] called Murphy like all the rest of them?”
— Boris Johnson, Prime Minister
“I will focus on the one Brexit deal that has already got through parliament – that was the withdrawal agreement with a change to the backstop. [Ireland] is the tail that wags the dog on this and we need to make sure we can do more to build that goodwill in Ireland and build their confidence.”
“The key is Ireland. I would offer to pay for the new alternative arrangements on the border, it would be in the hundreds of millions. I would propose to do that because economically it’s right and morally it’s right.”
— Sajid Javid, Chancellor of the Exchequer
“We have made clear that we will do nothing that draws a customs border down the Red Sea.” [sic – Raab was referring to the Irish Sea] — Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary
“The Government were well aware Ireland will face significant issues in a no-deal scenario. Why hasn’t this point been pressed home during the negotiations? There is still time to go back to Brussels and get a better deal.”
— Priti Patel, Home Secretary
“We need a new approach and we stand ready to engage with the European Union, to negotiate in good faith to make sure that we can have a friendly relationship in the future. We will put all our energy into making sure that we can secure that good deal but at the moment it is the EU that seems to be saying they are not interested. They are simply saying: ‘No, we don’t want to talk.’ I think that is wrong and sad. It is not in Europe’s interests.”
— Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
“There is simply no chance of any deal being passed that includes the anti-democratic backstop. This is the reality that the EU has to face.”
— Steve Barclay, Brexit Secretary