How do you solve a problem like the protocol?

The apotheosis of Johnsonism


Liz Truss had come to the Commons to make what was, depending on your perspective, either a threat or a promise. She was going to unilaterally change the hated Northern Ireland Protocol, which is blighting the lives of people across the Irish Sea. 

Her hope was that this threat would persuade the wicked European Union to compromise and change its position. She may also have hoped, though she didn’t say so, that this kind of tough promise would go down well on her own side in the leadership contest that may be to come. 

She wanted us to know that it was a bad, bad protocol. “Companies are facing significant costs and paperwork,” she explained. There was no time to get into who had negotiated it, fought an election on it, and signed it. The important thing was that we should all agree that it was a terrible mistake, and definitely some other government’s fault.

Tuesday offered an interesting example of the way that, without really thinking about it, the Conservative Party has been taken over by Borisism. 

The awful truth is that the rest of us should probably want this to succeed

It’s an interesting ism, as isms go. Whereas Thatcherism was about belief in a smaller state and free enterprise, Borisism is less an ideology and more of an approach, specifically one of utter shamelessness. Every Conservative MP stood in 2019 on the basis of a Brexit deal that involved the protocol. It was an oven-ready deal, a Johnsonian triumph. But to hear them on Tuesday, the protocol might have been written by Jeremy Corbyn. 

Simon Hoare, the first Tory to respond to Truss, pointed out that Margaret Thatcher had said governments ought to uphold the law, but he was a lone voice.  

Truss repeatedly said that the government had entered the protocol “in good faith”, and had been disappointed about how it was implemented. But Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, for the DUP, pointed out that he had told the government what it was agreeing to at the time. Over his shoulder Colum Eastwood of the SDLP made a series of faces that suggested cross-community harmony is still some way off.

Then Sir Bernard Jenkin made an interesting point. “Apart from the disagreement about whether we should have legislation,” he said, “there seems to be very broad agreement across the House.” He was right. Most opposition MPs agreed that the way the deal is being implemented needed to change. Hilary Benn, no wild-eyed Brexiteer, spoke for most of his Labour colleagues when he said it was ridiculous that sandwiches from Yorkshire, clearly destined for consumption in Northern Ireland, needed to be checked as though they might be shipped onwards to Italy. What he minded, he said, was the way the government was going about things, with a noisy confrontation with Brussels that risked a trade war.

That wasn’t it, though. What they really minded was all the Borising that was going on. The single most frustrating thing about the prime minister, for people who don’t like him, is that he keeps getting away with things. He lies about, well, everything, gets found out, and gets promoted. It drives his enemies up the wall. The deal that he is disowning is the deal that he negotiated, and his party are praising his resolute stance. Next PMQs, he’ll probably attack Labour for flip-flopping. 

He might well get away with this, too. For all the talk about unilateral action, Truss spent a lot of time talking about finding a “landing zone” with the EU. The process she’s started is going to take a long time, and meanwhile negotiations go on. It’s not hard to imagine this ending with a modified protocol that looks like a lighter-touch border, or even a bit like the “alternative arrangements” that Brexiteers used to go on about.

It might upset the DUP, and it would be intensely frustrating for those who want, just once, to see the prime minister face the consequences of his actions, but the awful truth is that the rest of us should probably want this to succeed. 

The prime minister’s real triumph in 2019 was to persuade the Conservative Party to pretend to believe in his deal in order to get it through, with the hope that the details could be fixed afterwards. It was dishonest, but it worked. 

Whether or not you buy the line that peace in Northern Ireland is at risk from the protocol, we should all want a good life for our fellow citizens, even if means that a shameless charlatan gets away with it again. Just accept it: on this one, we’re all Borisites now.  

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