A The detail of the often-forgotten Brexit story is Boris Johnson’s support for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement in a third House of Commons vote in March 2019. Having resigned from cabinet in protest against the Ms. May’s plan, he approved of it, not because he changed his mind about the content, but because it seemed opportune at the time. The motive was the fear of losing Brexit altogether; the intention was to kill Britain’s EU membership, take any available deal, and then try to change it from the outside.
Ms. May lost that vote. Mr Johnson became Prime Minister and his signature and exit strategy became government policy. Hence the decision in October 2019 to accept the Northern Ireland Protocol, placing a customs border in the Irish Sea. Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser at the time, said Downing Street had never intended to stick to the terms that had been agreed. A typically selfish and pugnacious Twitter blast from Mr. Cummings included the claim that “cheating on strangers is an essential part of the job.”
Mr Johnson may not agree, but nothing in his demeanor towards Northern Ireland and its carefully negotiated special status indicates good faith or a commitment to honest diplomacy. Lord Frost, Mr Johnson’s Brexit minister, delivered a speech on Tuesday demanding that the protocol be scrapped and replaced with a new treaty. He particularly insisted on the fact that the European Court of Justice no longer has any jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. As Mr Johnson is aware, this jurisdiction is intrinsic to the functioning of the single market rules, which apply in Northern Ireland to avoid the requirement of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. Mr. Frost’s request amounts, in essence, to blowing up the foundations of the agreement. From Downing Street’s perspective, it is an intolerable affront to national sovereignty to have EU decisions enforceable anywhere in UK territory under all circumstances.
Making the demand at all suggests intransigence. To do so the day before the European Commission was to come up with its own technical remedies to the operational problems of the protocol was downright provocative. The plans, presented on Wednesday by Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-chairman of the committee responsible for Brexit, were practical and technical, unlike Mr Frost’s contribution. The EU offers a high degree of flexibility in the application of customs and regulatory controls, effectively applying much more benefit of the doubt so that many more goods can pass unhindered from Britain to Northern Ireland. Such an arrangement would have been seen as a dramatic concession and a victory for Brexiters if it had been proposed at an earlier stage in the process. Some EU members, notably France, are uncomfortable with the plan precisely for this reason. It seems to reward British intransigence. Seasoned followers of conservative politics know that the Eurosceptic appetite is insatiable and that the concession is always swallowed without gratitude and followed by more demands.
The EU’s offer is a gamble. Mr Šefčovič described it as overturning his existing rules “backwards and forwards”. It is generous enough that the British rejection proves Mr Johnson prefers conflict to resolution. If the goal is to make Brexit work for Northern Ireland, Mr Šefčovič’s proposals are the basis for a deal. Rather, to insist on dropping the protocol altogether would be tantamount to holding Northern Ireland hostage to a reckless game of political scam that could quickly escalate into a costly and unnecessary trade war. This is the choice Mr Johnson faces. He is offered a diplomatic solution to a problem that he himself created. It costs him little to accept; it costs Great Britain dearly if he refuses.