The night of June 23rd 2016 is etched into most people’s mind as one of the biggest political moments in the United Kingdom’s history. Following the referendum, David Cameron resigned and he was replaced by Theresa May who also had to resign as she couldn’t get Brexit delivered via her withdrawal agreement.
It seemed impossible a Prime Minister could survive in office while Brexit was still the central issue. But, it is well known Boris Johnson currently holds an 80 seat majority in parliament following his election campaign solely focused on “getting Brexit done”. He made it clear all that needed to be done was to finalise the withdrawal agreement, which he did, and the issue would be put to bed. However it turned out not to be as simple as that. Could Brexit cause the downfall of Boris’ premiership?
With the ongoing pandemic you could be forgiven for forgetting Brexit was happening at all, but the government still has negotiations to partake in. Having officially left the European Union on January 31st 2020, having signed the withdrawal agreement, the UK and EU have to agree on a free trade deal (FTA) that would allow easier trade between the two areas and would be beneficial to both parties involved. The FTA will also reduce the likelihood of a hard border in Northern Ireland and ease flow of goods in and out of the UK across borders in places like Dover. The reason Brexit has became a topic again this last week is Michel Barnier, EU negotiator, is meeting with David Frost, UK negotiator, in London for one of the final times as the 31st December deadline for the FTA looms ever closer.
The consequence of no deal being reached would be increased trade barriers for both countries who are both vital trading partners of each other. If trade barriers are increased in the short term there will be further economic damage especially among the manufacturing sector of the economy, which could lead to large amounts of job losses (on top of those caused by coronavirus). There has been little progress in negotiation in recent months due to three major sticking points: state aid, fishing policy and the Northern Ireland protocol.
The Northern Ireland protocol is rumoured to be rewritten by No.10, which is part of an international treaty. The reason this may become a sticking point is best summed up by the Northern Ireland secretaries own words ‘this does break international law in a very specific and limited way’.
This issue was partly elevated to the top of the news agenda by the resignation of the chief government lawyer Jonathon Jones, but also breaking international law will erode trust in both past and future agreements and undermine the UKs reputation as a country who follow rule and order. The government aims to amend the Internal Market Bill which will overrule the internationally agreed Northern Ireland protocol. This parliament voted for the Northern Ireland protocol and would undermine its reputation abroad if it voted for the potentially illegal government amendment, as stated by a passionate Theresa May when questioning the current Northern Ireland secretary.
The key to Boris Johnson’s success as Prime Minister is having the support of his backbenchers, especially the newly elected MPs. Backbenchers have been outspoken on other issues, regarding taxation and spending, but have pledged loyalty to the withdrawal agreement during the election and this loyalty likely won them their seats. However, the idea of potentially breaking international law will make most MPs uncomfortable and there is possibility of a revolt.
If the lack of progress in the Brexit talks becomes a bigger story, Coronavirus may help distract from it. Yet, then the public who voted for this Conservative government on the slogan of getting Brexit done may feel betrayed that it turns out it has not. Backbenchers in marginal seats can often change their mind when a flood of emails from angry constituents swamp their inbox. However, there is also a quiet confidence that a last minute deal could be done just like the final withdrawal deal, although that involved abandoning previously established redlines, which may save the Johnson government from a possible election losing catastrophe.
Obviously as the Brexit talks continue there is still a Coronavirus pandemic taking place and the government is coming under pressure for various U-turns and unpopular policies that are leading to slow increases in restrictions. However, this is the government which has Dominic Cummings, chair of Vote Leave, as the chief advisor and many cabinet positions have been awarded to people because of loyalty to the Prime Minister’s Brexit policy.
A failure to deliver Brexit will be a failure of the government to deliver on their key policy and that may lead to Boris Johnson to become one of many Conservative Prime Ministers to have lost their job because of the issue of the European Union.