Artillery Row

Are we still talking to the EU?

Government spin is mixing the Brexit divorce agreement with the trade deal

You’ll be forgiven for being a little confused as to the state of play of Brexit negotiations recently. If you clocked that Boris Johnson has said he’s no longer negotiating with the EU, you might be confused to learn that Michael Gove, standing up in the House of Commons today, confirmed that negotiations were going very well, thank you very much, and that the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol were being implemented by a joint team of EU-UK officials. What you need to separate in your mind is the fact of the divorce from the reality of the payments and access you’re going to have. Current government spin is mixing the two, very different, things up.

As with many so many EU-related issues, the current complexity came about because of something that happened years ago. In 2017 the EU demanded that we first agree a “divorce deal” before we started talking about the trade deal. The first Brexit Secretary, David Davis, sensed a trap and decided to hold both talks at the same time, declaring that the “sequencing” of talks would be “the row of the summer” with the EU. Theresa May overruled him and agreed that the UK would pay what the EU said we owed (which ended up being £39 billion, worked out to a formula no one even in Whitehall could explain or defend) before we got any kind of trade deal. In those days, before Australia was discovered, a trade deal was called “the future relationship”.

The Prime Minister and his team must surely know that Tory voters risk conflating the two deals

We ended up agreeing the “divorce” part, which, aside from the money, said we’d erect a customs border inside the UK and make Ulster subject to EU rules. That’s the bit of the deal Michael Gove is busy implementing. But we never got the trade deal part, the bit that Boris Johnson now says he’s walked away from. So that’s the thing to bear in mind: whatever we get on trade – whatever, indeed, might have already been agreed on trade, and awaits the present tweeted kabuki to come to an end – doesn’t change what we’ve already tamely accepted. Namely the divorce deal.

The current Prime Minister and his team must surely know that Tory voters risk conflating the two deals. Imagining, then, that Boris Johnson is threatening to: stop paying the huge walking away money; scrap the customs procedures he’s implementing in the Irish sea; and, threatening to rip up EU laws in Northern Ireland. When in fact, as he knows, he’s doing nothing of the sort. And rather more importantly, as his interlocutors in Brussels (and Berlin) know he’s not. The other side will have an all-too clear view of the British negotiating posture.

Making it especially easy to mix up the deals, all the noise about fish – the supposed great divide – obscures the simple truth that that’s of course in the trade deal which isn’t yet agreed. Thus if Boris Johnson really were to walk away from that, the UK could potentially throw all EU vessels out of British waters as London saw fit.

Number 10 are, for the moment, succeeding in putting off the day when the ERG denounces them

But Boris won’t be walking away from the rest of it, not unless he scraps the Withdrawal Agreement. Perhaps knowing that people would merge the two deals in their heads he even used his “No Deal” walkout pitch in a fundraising email to Tory party members. Which was a very cynical political grift indeed as there’s no threat to walk away from the “divorce” part of the deal, as Michael Gove confirmed today in the Commons. Anecdotally, to read some of the angry comments under this video, 2019 Tory Brexit supporters have realised what’s going on and are not happy.

Number 10 are, for the moment, succeeding in putting off the evil day when the ERG denounces them for BRINO and betrayal. The strategy is obvious enough: tell Brexiteers privately what they want to hear in order that Dominic Cummings’ factional opponents don’t get round to ‘fattening their pig before market day’. If the betrayal narrative Downing Street so fears is going to bite, the great mouth of the ERG is going to have to open soon. And it won’t land if it’s done just at the last moment after a year of nodding agreement. There are dilemas all round inside the Tory Party at the moment.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover