Richard North, 15/09/2020  
 


This is Johnson in the Telegraph on 12 September – just three days ago, under the heading "Let's make the EU take their threats off the table and pass this Bill":
We are being told that the EU will not only impose tariffs on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but that they might actually stop the transport of food products from GB to NI.

I have to say that we never seriously believed that the EU would be willing to use a treaty, negotiated in good faith, to blockade one part of the UK, to cut it off, or that they would actually threaten to destroy the economic and territorial integrity of the UK. This was for the very good reason that any such barrier, any such tariffs or division, would be completely contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

By actively undermining the Union of our country, such an interpretation would seriously endanger peace and stability in Northern Ireland. This interpretation cannot have been the real intention of those who framed the protocol (it certainly wasn't ours) – and it is therefore vital that we close that option down.

We want an agreement in the Joint Committee on how we can implement the protocol. We have consistently shown that we are willing to help our friends – to the extent that is possible and reasonable – to protect the integrity of their Single Market and to keep a fluid North-South border.

But we cannot leave the theoretical power to carve up our country – to divide it – in the hands of an international organisation. We have to protect the UK from that disaster, and that is why we have devised a legal safety net – in the UK Internal Market Bill – to clarify the position and to sort out the inconsistencies.

This Bill protects jobs and growth across the UK by preventing barriers to trade between the nations and regions. It means that anything approved for sale in Scotland or Wales must be good for sale in England or Northern Ireland, and vice-versa.

The Bill gives freedoms and certainties for businesses and citizens that were previously set out in EU law. That is why, as we now come out of the EU, it is absolutely vital. It is now also clear that we need this Bill to protect the free flow of goods and services between NI and the rest of the UK, and to make sense of that commitment in the EU withdrawal agreement – that NI is part of the UK customs territory. It is therefore crucial for peace, and for the Union itself. We must get this Bill through.
Point 1: he postulates that the EU might actually stop the transport of food products from GB to NI. Point 2: he asserts that "we have devised a legal safety net – in the UK Internal Market Bill – to clarify the position and to sort out the inconsistencies". Point 3: he states that "this Bill … means that anything approved for sale in Scotland or Wales must be good for sale in England or Northern Ireland, and vice-versa". Point 4: he declares that: "we need this Bill to protect the free flow of goods and services between NI and the rest of the UK".

By any measure, and by any ordinary use of the English language, the man is referring to Clause 2 of the UK Internal Market Bill, and asserting that this is necessary to beat the EU's supposed "blockade".

Now we come to yesterday's debate. Again, he asserts that:
… the EU has said … it might very well refuse to list the UK’s food and agricultural products for sale anywhere in the EU. It gets even worse, because under this protocol, that decision would create an instant and automatic prohibition on the transfer of our animal products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
But now he says of this "extraordinary threat" that "we are not taking powers in this Bill to neutralise that threat, but we obviously reserve the right to do so if these threats persist…".

Thus, we see a complete volte face from this prime minister, completely contradicting something he, himself had written in a newspaper only days earlier. But just in case we have misunderstood what has been said, we have Ed Miliband (a Labour ghost from the past) who, in a brutal dissection of the prime minister's inconsistencies, says:
I do not know whether the House noticed - which is that this Bill does precisely nothing to address the issue of the transport of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. It is about two issues where the Government are going to override international law: exit declarations, Northern Ireland to GB, and the definition of state aid relating to Northern Ireland. If the Prime Minister wants to tell us that there is another part of the Bill that I have not noticed that will deal with this supposed threat of blockade, I will very happily give way to him. I am sure he has read it; I am sure he knows it in detail, because he is a details man. Come on, tell us: what clause protects against the threat, which he says he is worried about, to GB-to-Northern Ireland exports? I give way to him.
When a decidedly miserable-looking Johnson declined to respond, Miliband triumphantly declared – as well he might: "There you have it: he didn’t read the protocol, he hasn’t read the Bill, he doesn’t know his stuff.".

But it is there in the Bill, in Clause 2, which was what Johnson was asserting on Saturday, although he has now abandoned that claim.

That leaves him going to the wire on what Miliband rightly asserts are two issues: exit declarations, Northern Ireland to GB, and the definition of state aid relating to Northern Ireland. And for that, he would break international law and bring down this huge surge of criticism and anger.

But it says something that neither media nor politicians seems to have tied together Johnson's Telegraph statement and his subsequent denial in the House. If he truly intended the Bill to break the EU's "blockade", and is now retreating from this position – which he self-evidently is – then this has to be the mother of all U-turns.

This prime minister has marched his zombies to the top of the hill – where they dutifully supporting him – and is now marching them back down again, having not even addressed the issue over which he has raised the alarm.

Bluntly, the prime minister really has nowhere to go on this. Or, as Miliband put it:
The Prime Minister is coming to the House to tell us today that his flagship achievement - the deal he told us was a triumph, the deal he said was oven-ready, the deal on which he fought and won the general election - is now contradictory and ambiguous. What incompetence. What failure of governance.
In full flow, he continued:
How dare he try to blame everyone else? I say to the Prime Minister that this time he cannot blame the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), he cannot blame John Major, he cannot blame the judges, he cannot blame the civil servants, he cannot sack the Cabinet Secretary again. There is only one person responsible for it and that is him. This is his deal. It is his mess. It is his failure. For the first time in his life, it is time to take responsibility.
And thus he concluded: "It is time to ’fess up: either he was not straight with the country about the deal in the first place, or he did not understand it".

Interestingly, of all the things that Thatcher ever said, the most memorable must be her strident declaration: "No! No! No!". In politics as elsewhere, it seems, all good things come in threes. If there is any justice, Johnson will forever be associated with another trio: "his deal … his mess … his failure". If it were left to me, I'd chisel it on his tombstone.

Also published on Turbulent Times.






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