Boris Johnson is flailing – so he is reviving his Brexit greatest hits | Rafael Behr

One day, when Boris Johnson is not prime minister and the complete catalogue of his frauds is compiled, a particular place will belong to 1 that acquired him elected within the first place. Before he attended any lockdown events, earlier than there have been pandemic guidelines to interrupt or lies to inform in regards to the breakage, there was the promise to Get Brexit Done.

It is not completed. That is why Johnson’s authorities is drafting a legislation that will give ministers the facility to override the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit deal. This is the very treaty that Johnson hailed as “great”, “excellent”, a fulfilment of all his negotiating ambitions. If that had been true, he wouldn’t now be planning to set it on hearth.

Sound acquainted? It ought to do. It is the most recent sequel in a hackneyed franchise with a formulaic plot. In the Brexiteer creativeness it is an motion journey film. Brussels has taken a portion of UK sovereignty hostage. Plucky Boris should go in, all weapons blazing, to retrieve it. In such escapades of derring-do, taking part in by the principles and respecting treaties is for remoaner softies.

A recap from earlier episodes: to keep away from reimposing a tough border on the island of Ireland, a particular customs regime was agreed for the North that requires checks on some items crossing from the British mainland. Johnson signed as much as this. Ministers now declare it was by no means meant to be a everlasting answer, by which they imply Johnson lied to his European counterparts in addition to his voters. He by no means meant to honour the deal.

Until now, the federal government’s agitation has been expressed by fingering, however by no means fairly pulling, the set off on article 16 – the break clause written into the Brexit deal. But article 16 is a path to extra negotiation and mediation inside the scope of the treaty itself. It is a traditional weapon. The new system being assembled within the Downing Street bunker goes nuclear.

Will it’s detonated? Veterans of previous Brexit wars will likely be conversant in the cost-benefit equation. It comes right down to a check of the place Johnson thinks his short-term self-interest lies. The principle is that it takes a correct disaster for Brussels to take discover of British grievance. Currently, the EU is addressing the Northern Ireland question in technical, authorized phrases, through the fee. Johnson needs to escalate it to a deal between political leaders. He thinks a British prime minister shouldn’t need to haggle with bureaucrats. He ought to be stitching one thing up with Paris and Berlin. That’s the way it labored within the outdated days. But within the outdated days Britain was a member of the EU. That isn’t the way it works for “third countries”.

A draw back to confrontation is that it could be divisive at a time when western nations are striving for solidarity over Russia’s assault on Ukraine. On that entrance, Johnson thinks his credentials as a stalwart pal of Kyiv are sufficiently effectively established – and famous in Washington – that he has wriggle room to make calls for over Northern Ireland, a topic on which the Americans may beforehand have slapped him down.

But standing as probably the most pro-Ukrainian chief within the room doesn’t get Johnson so far as he thinks in Brussels, the place he isn’t within the precise room. He wants goodwill from Emmanuel Macron to shift diplomatic dials for him on the European council. The French president, with a newly acquired home mandate however plenty of bother in his in-tray, gained’t spend any political capital doing favours for a person he mistrusts, having handled him earlier than.

The prime minister has by no means been one for cultivating international alliances, because it requires consistency and reliability. His pursuits are extra parochial. Also, wounded by Partygate, his focus is now on the bare-knuckle combat for survival. To that finish, a conflagration of EU points may assist to thaw relations with the rightwing faction that historically settles the destiny of Tory leaders. It would irritate reasonable MPs, however they aren’t as ruthless or as organised.

No rival for the management will danger criticising an act of hardline Brexit revivalism. Liz Truss, the international secretary, fancies the highest job and is notionally in command of negotiations over Northern Ireland. She wouldn’t have chosen a manoeuvre as wantonly vandalistic because the protocol override invoice, however she is mentioned to be reconciled to the transfer. The chancellor has beforehand been an impediment at any time when No 10 has wished to select fights with Brussels, channelling Treasury anxiousness about the price of a commerce conflict. But Rishi Sunak is badly diminished by latest political missteps round tax – those he raised for voters and those his non-domiciled partner prevented paying. Johnson not sees him as a menace.

Cabinet has not mentioned the plan to sabotage the Brexit deal in legislation. Much is determined by elections subsequent week. The Stormont meeting ballot in Northern Ireland may set off a disaster by making Sinn Féin the most important celebration. Unionists would then lose the proper to call the primary minister – a lack of political primacy that will be principally symbolic, however culturally insupportable for that cause. Meanwhile, if council elections in England reveal huge discontent with Johnson, Tory MPs could also be spurred to maneuver towards him.

Then there could be double temptation to go all in with a Brexit bust-up. Johnson would say that solely scrapping the protocol may ease tensions in Northern Ireland (though in actuality the election there’ll most likely present a majority in favour of retaining it). The override legislation won’t even must be handed. The prime minister could be most within the spectacle – a battle with Brussels, obstruction within the House of Lords, the fulminations of remain-supporting liberals; a fireworks show to get the outdated Eurosceptic core vote ooh-ing and ah-ing in appreciation, identical to the outdated days.

Would it work? Probably not. The pledge to Get Brexit Done had such breadth of enchantment as a result of it raised hope of ending the poisonous, self-involved nationwide drama over a difficulty that most individuals had not thought-about all that vital earlier than a alternative was compelled on them in a referendum. Only a fanatical minority misses the combat sufficient to restart it. And right this moment’s Johnson has lost the knack that his former self had for turning disaster into carnival. His levity not will get him leniency from an viewers that has heard only a few too many lies. Still, there could be a sure tidy symmetry if his downfall included a Brexit invoice that provided false decision to a disaster with out finish; his final nice dishonesty in office being a mirror of the primary.

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