Boris Johnson leaves his campaign HQ provided by Andrew Griffith, on 23rd July 2019 (Photo by Richard Baker)
Artillery Row

Why Boris let the EU keep Northern Ireland

Two parties in Downing St. that explain why Boris Johnson ignored his Brexiteer base

Brexit-watchers might be slightly confused as to why the UK has agreed, in the trade deal with the EU, to maintain the Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland protocol. In 2018 he told the DUP’s party conference that “no British government could or should” sign up to putting a border in the Irish Sea between mainland United Kingdom and Northern Ireland but ended up doing just that in his Withdrawal Agreement. Since then privately the Government told Brexiteers the protocol would be removed in the coming trade agreement. That didn’t happen.

However, two large gatherings in Downing St. might offer some clues as to why Boris Johnson has agreed to keep the deal he signed late last year. The first demonstrates his inbuilt ideological distance from Brexiteers, and the second demonstrates how the Brexiteers he included in his inner circle excluded the wider eurosceptic movement that was calling on him to scrap the Withdrawal Agreement. 

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July 2019, No.10 decided to have a party to reward all of the major players who had contributed to the referendum result in 2016. The only problem was, the person put in charge of the guest list had no idea who they were.  A former Sky television executive, Andrew Griffith had let Boris Johnson use his £9.5 million Westminster townhouse as a leadership campaign HQ, but after Johnson entered Downing St. and Griffith was made the Prime Minister’s Chief Business Adviser, senior Brexiteers were left scratching their heads: “When the PM said ‘Fuck business’ Griffith was precisely the kind of person he was talking about. The rent-seeking crony capitalists that do nothing for the exchequer.” one remarked. Griffith, put in charge of getting a list together of key eurosceptics, was forced to reach out to senior Brexiteers outside of government in order to finish off the list of invites.

When the party was nearly over the Prime Minister reportedly remarked to a colleague that every single group of people he had spoken to that day had told him he had to scrap the Withdrawal Agreement. The colleague said they all had a point, but just as he was about to leave, the PM remarked “But it’s not really that bad is it?”.

Fast forward to another party organised by Downing St. for the technical exit date, Jan 31st 2020. By this point the Prime Minister was not just ignoring former Vote Leave figures, it appears he was being blocked from meeting them, except of course, from the faction that worked in Downing St.

The Downing St. takeover by a faction of Vote Leave is partly why Johnson ignored Northern Ireland

British businessman and senior Vote Leave member Jon Moynihan had organised a big event to mark the occasion and invited a large number of Brexiteers, Cabinet Ministers and former Vote Leave staff including those close to Cummings who worked in Downing St. However the week before the event No.10 hastily arranged their own party which clashed with Moynihan’s event. By this point Cleo Watson, a former Vote Leave staffer and Cummings acolyte, had been installed as Boris Johnson’s diary secretary. The hastily arranged Downing St. party was poorly attended and notably senior figures like Vote Leave CEO Matthew Elliott had not been invited. Elliott, along with a number of other senior Brexiteers from Vote Leave and those seen as too close to the ERG, were not just blocked from the party, they had also been put on a blacklist by Dominic Cummings from taking jobs in Government.

The Downing St. takeover by a particular faction of Vote Leave is partly the reason why a Prime Minister who was not naturally concerned about the Withdrawal Agreement or the views of the DUP, was prevented from meeting eurosceptics who were. When Theresa May was negotiating her own Withdrawal Agreement Dominic Cummings famously wrote that people shouldn’t “worry about the so-called ‘permanent’ commitments this historically abysmal Cabinet are trying to make on our behalf” because the Government could easily break them with domestic legislation. Such a mindset does not lend itself to reading the small print when signing up to international agreements. It’s worth pointing out that the government removed all of the “law-breaking” clauses from the Internal Market Act and the Taxation Act, which means Northern Ireland is effectively partitioned by both agreements with no domestic law mitigated its effects.

Brexiteers have basically accepted that the deal will pass in parliament tomorrow but have vowed to fight on to remove the Northern Ireland protocol and change other elements like fish. But the time for fighting on the protocol was back in January when the deal was agreed. It remains to be seen what outside campaigners can do after their own Government has already signed the adoption papers for Ulster and promised the EU not to try to get it back via domestic law.

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