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Boris’ Bad Deal

Boris Johnson's Brexit deal tears up protections for working people and opens the door for US-style deregulation. Labour should bury it, before it buries us.

Let’s get things clear to start with: no one who values the rights, protections, and public services we have fought for and won should offer any support to Boris Johnson’s deal. It is a craven sell-out of working people in Britain to US corporate interests. It clears the path to a low tax, no protection society in which hard-won rights at work are destroyed, and consumer and environmental protections ripped up. It is an abject document that promises little more than turning this country into a vassal of the United States. And should it pass through Parliament, it helps clear the route to a hardline Tory victory in the next election, with Boris Johnson fighting as the ‘Man Who Gets Things Done.’

Any Labour MP voting for this deal should have the whip removed. No ifs, no buts. After three years of Tory failure to deliver on what seemed to be a simple vote, frustration with the Brexit process is sky-high, and understandably so. By locking us in to unrealistic red lines for negotiation, even after she lost her majority in 2017, and ineptly using ‘no-deal’ as a negotiating threat to force through a hard Brexit, Theresa May’s government poisoned the entire process. But frustration is not enough of a reason to hand a victory to Boris Johnson and his clique. 

The deal on the table makes plain that the section of the Tory Party that wants to radically reshape this country, bending it towards the US and stripping it bare of social protections, has won out. The mechanism to do so is, first, remove the Irish “backstop” in May’s deal that threatened to permanently align the whole of the UK with EU regulations; second, to remove and weaken the sections in the ‘Outline Political Declaration’ that lays out the plans for future UK-EU co-operation. These sections implied the UK would continue to observe EU standards, and Trump himself had raised concerns with them, in his inimitable style, late last year. Both have now been dealt with: the backstop issues solved by simply placing a customs and regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK; the Outline Political Declaration carefully rewritten.

Passing the deal, of course, will not simply bring discussion of Brexit to an end – despite the hopes of much of the country. Instead, we would look forward to years of negotiations with future trading partners, in which the present government would try to rapidly lock-in their fantasies of a deregulated future. The Tories once talked glibly about doing trade deals with rising economies like India, but of course if they also maintain a hardline on immigration – as threatened in the Queen’s Speech – this is a nonstarter. Johnson has, however, softened from May’s dogged insistence that this is the only issue. The priority for this Tory government is the United States, and that is where it will turn first.

Forget no-deal. Johnson always wanted a deal. He campaigned for the Tory leadership over the summer on two bases: first, that he would get a deal; second, that he would smash Jeremy Corbyn. No-deal was only ever intended to frighten people; of course, it could be triggered by mistake – and we may still end up there – but it was absolutely not a preferred option. Johnson noisily insisted that he could get a deal, and his closest advisor, Dominic Cummings, insisted that a deal could be done. All of this, of course, shows how much they hold the no-deal hardliners within the European Research Group in contempt. A reasonable bet is that any government willing to inflict the hardship of no-deal on the country would be summarily routed at the next election.

Literally everything looks easier for Johnson if he can get a deal through – preferably on 31 October, as promised. Contrary to some wilder Remainer fantasies, the mere act of leaving the EU will not cause the sky to fall in. Indeed, if a deal creates certainty, we might well expect some of that business investment currently being held back. If this hurdle is seen to be cleared, it is feasible that investment would come rushing forward – the perfect conditions for a pre-election mini-boom, with a beaming PM Johnson, perhaps in a hard hat at a suitable photo op, announcing however many millions had now been secured for however many jobs. Everything pointed towards the Johnson government wanting a deal, and there was and is no credible evidence of some kind of no-deal hedge fund plot.

But the EU also wanted a deal. A no-deal exit would cost the UK most economically, but it would cost all EU members at least something – Ireland most obviously, but also major trading partners like the Netherlands and Germany. The EU certainly did not want to make exit easy – like any Mafia operation, the barriers to leaving have to be made high enough to stop people glancing longingly at the door. But after three years of Tory governments humiliating themselves in public, that was no longer a problem. Britain is a laughing stock and Brexit stands as a cautionary tale to any other eurosceptic cause. Now the EU just wants the Brexit shitshow out of their hair. They were happy with the May Withdrawal Agreement, but basically any deal that met Ireland’s minimum conditions would be fine with them.

In terms of the Irish question, it’s not quite clear why successive Tory governments believed the EU would be more likely to listen to a departing state than a member wholeheartedly committed to staying. But it should have been screamingly obvious this was flawed logic. Tory-led negotiations on the British side were always subject to a degree of delusion about the scope and extent of Britain’s real power in the world.

May’s government grossly misjudged its ability to divide its EU opposition; Johnson’s has simply changed her previously immovable priorities. In his usual manner, he has trampled all over the red line he insisted to DUP conference he would never cross, and accepted a customs and regulatory border will be placed in the Irish Sea. Any barriers of that nature are anathema to the DUP: but, at the very least, placing Northern Ireland inside the EU customs and regulatory area moves the prospect of a united Ireland to within touching distance.

Part of the game of declaring the deal to be done before the DUP agreed – their 10 MPs votes are essential to Johnson if he wants this deal to pass through Parliament – is to put pressure on them to fold. Brinksmanship is standard EU negotiating tactics, as anyone who read Yanis Varoufakis’ account of his time as Greek finance minister will appreciate: they stonewall, refuse discussion of alternatives, and brief against their opponents to the press while posing as the guarantors of good political behaviour. They’re good at it: usually, their opponents crack first. But what has worked with the feeble dilletantes of the Tory government may not work with the hardened sectarians of the Democratic Unionist Party.

If Johnson has chosen to turn his back on the Union, he’s clasped the curiously-named European Research Group ever more tightly to his bosom. The ERG had two objections to the original May deal: a big one to the backstop, and a smaller on to the original Outline Political Declaration. They hid behind the DUP’s complaints to object to the former, but the real issue for them was the backstop creating a potentially permanent alignment with the EU. By choosing to remove the backstop in favour of a border down the Irish Sea, Johnson has shown his priorities: not the United Kingdom, but the United States. So much, then, for the “Conservative and Unionist Party”. 

Johnson has by no means won. Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely firm in his response to this sell out deal. Labour will not be supporting something in Parliament that threatens to undermine everything the party stands for and has helped build. We need to bury this deal, before it buries us.