Boris Johnson won an election on the promise of a deal with the EU that would be ready to go – he should stick to his word, argues Mike Buckley

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The UK economy is like the cartoon character who has been forced to walk the plank but has yet to be grasped by gravity, staring with panicked eyes above shark-infested waters. The pause heightens the tension and teases the audience before the promised reward of the sharks having their fill.

Once the furlough schemes end and grants have been spent, thousands of businesses and millions of jobs are likely to hit the water. In the words of the Prime Minister, “many, many job losses” are “inevitable”. It’s just a matter of time. 

Every economy will be affected more or less depending on its inbuilt pre-virus resilience and the steps its government took to mitigate its spread. National and local government, the Bank of England, business and charities must all gear up to respond. Sound investments, grants, sector-specific support and cheap loans could hopefully save many.

But the UK is on the cusp of once-in-a generation political and economic shift of its own making. Brexit has begun but the end is yet to come. The future relationship between the UK and EU is yet to be decided. Even within the narrow scope of possible outcomes, there is still a real difference between the deal agreed with the EU last autumn and a world trade agreement end state. 

Michel Barnier’s June state of negotiations was a downbeat assessment of progress. “There has been no substantial progress since the beginning of these negotiations,” he said. “We cannot continue like this forever.” He spent most of his time listing commitments made by the UK merely months ago on the level playing field, fishing rights, state aid and more – commitments that the UK is not just backtracking on but is now saying are unacceptable.

Barnier’s core point was that the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration were agreed as two parts of a single movement. The Agreement took the UK out of the EU with basic elements agreed. The Political Declaration is a road-map for the future relationship between the two, approved by the 27 EU leaders, the UK and European Parliaments. Johnson held both the agreement and declaration aloft as the one true Brexit that would lead to “national revival”

It took Johnson just 20 days to ditch his commitments.

On 20 February, less than three weeks after Brexit Day, The Telegraph reported that Johnson had “made it clear that he will not be bound by the Political Declaration which sets out the ground rules for a trade deal”.

During the 2019 General Election campaign, the British people were repeatedly told that Johnson’s deal was “oven-ready” – the implication being that negotiations would end and the UK could finally move on.

The changes Johnson now wants to make are not negligible. The level playing field – shorthand for common high standards on state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change, and taxation – was agreed by the Prime Minister on the basis that the future agreement must prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages. Agreements were made on nuclear safety, counter-terrorism and ongoing oversight.

But Johnson wants nothing to do with any of this now and asserts that, to agree common standards with the EU, would fail to treat the UK as a sovereign nation. This is despite the fact that the free trade agreements the EU has with Canada and Japan include such commitments.

This is a major change which ought to be of concern to every voter who turned out for Johnson’s “oven-ready” deal. It is one thing to make minor changes to a policy but quite another to rip out its heart when it includes issues of clear public concern such as food standards, nuclear safety and workers’ rights

The Prime Minister is banking on the fact that the public will pay little attention. He is undecided on whether he will suffer more politically from ‘no deal’ or from signing the UK up to a deal with even minimal oversight from the European Court of Justice or a bespoke committee. ‘No deal’ would be attacked by Labour as a failure and an economic disaster, but signing up to external oversight would be attacked by Nigel Farage as a Brexit betrayal. Johnson will not want to risk being tarred as the man who made the UK a rule taker or a new Faragist party. 

It is likely that Johnson hopes the impact of Brexit will be disguised by the once in 300 years recession that the Coronavirus looks set to create. But the fall-out of the virus and a ‘no deal’ Brexit damage different sectors and regions. A recent report found that key sectors including manufacturing, banking and finance would be severely exposed by a ‘no deal’ Brexit and that harm would be concentrated in London, the south-east and in former ‘Red Wall’ areas. Economists believe that a collapse in talks followed by an unmanaged exit from the EU would harm confidence, spending and investment. The UK would suffer a comparatively slower recovery from the pandemic recession than other major European economies.

At the root of this is trust. The “oven-ready” Brexit deal was already far harder than the promises which won the 2016 EU Referendum. No trade deal would be far worse. 

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’


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