As Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, ‘a week is a long time in politics.’ It was long enough for Boris Johnson to secure a Brexit deal and for it to pass its second reading in the House of Commons, however, it was not long enough to see it pass before the 31st October ‘do or die’ deadline.
The government has now ‘paused’ the deal and is attempting to use the promise of time for debate as leverage for an election. With temptations to pass this deal because of ‘Brexit fatigue’ on the rise, here’s why MPs, now more than ever, need restraint and cool heads.
Fatigue and slogans like ‘Get Brexit Done’ may tempt MPs into voting through Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). However, the bill does not ‘Get Brexit Done’, it simply marks the end of the beginning of Brexit.
What follows is the negotiations of the UK’s future relationship with Europe. EU Chief Negotiator of Future UK-EU relations, Michel Barnier, has recently said that these negotiations could take ‘two or three’ more years than the current December 2020 deadline. Claire Foges recently noted in The Times that focus group attendees have been left in ‘silence’ once they have been told that the WAB is not the end of Brexit. Passing this deal won’t give MP’s or the public the respite from Brexit fatigue that they desire.
Therefore it is incredibly important that MPs take their time to scrutinise what will set the foundations for the UK’s future relations with Europe. The two most important words in relation to Boris Johnson’s 115-page Withdrawal Agreement are that it’s ‘Boris Johnsons.’ The deal he has presented is substantially worse than Theresa May’s and yet it has a greater chance of passing simply because of the name of the man who is presenting it.
The agreement puts up barriers to trade with our closest and largest trading partner. According to the non-partisan think tank ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ when compared to remaining in the EU, May’s deal would have seen the UK’s income per capita shrink 1.7% over 10 years whereas Johnson’s would see it shrink 2.5%. It would surely be an abdication of responsibility for MPs to vote for a deal which will make their constituents poorer because of fatigue.
Furthermore, Clause 30 of the WAB leaves open the possibility of a no-deal Brexit outcome. If negotiations on a future relationship are incomplete by December 2020 (and EU Chief Negotiator Barnier seems to think they won’t be) then the clause provides the government with the ability not to ask for an extension and to simply crash out without consulting MPs. The effects of a no-deal Brexit are myriad and extensively covered, but for comparison estimates of the effects of no-deal Brexit on income per capita forecast a reduction between 3.5% and 8.7%. There is no excuse for passing any legislation that may lead to no deal.
An area of extreme importance and seemingly intractability in relation to Brexit is Northern Ireland, and for good reason too. Johnson’s deal threatens the Union and the peace secured in Northern Ireland by the Good Friday Agreement.
Johnson’s deal creates a customs border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland along the Irish Sea. This border means that any trade between Northern Ireland and the UK will have to be recorded on Export Declaration forms. HM Revenue and Customs estimated that for trade between the UK and the rest of the world the average cost of each declaration is between £15 and £56 per declaration. This increases costs for businesses but also creates issues for Unionists. Although not implementing a state border, it does implement a customs border that sees Northern Ireland treated differently from Great Britain which Unionists are wholeheartedly against.
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne has recently told Newsnight that any deal that threatens the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland could lead to civil disorder by loyalists. The DUP’s reaction to the new customs border along the Irish sea was to call it ‘absurd’ and unconstitutional.’ To pass a deal that threatens the peace secured by the Good Friday Agreement because of fatigue may be the height of irresponsibility.
Furthermore, Northern Ireland’s continued alignment with the single market will lead the SNP to question why they can’t also have these benefits and have already stirred talks of a new independence referendum in Scotland. Fatigue is no excuse to allow a bill to pass which may break up the Union.
The deal has also seen the government refuse to sign up to EU level playing field provisions on labour and environmental standards. The WAB only obliges ministers to inform the house if there is any ‘regressing’ from EU standards whereas May’s deal enshrined them in law. This could lead to what Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has described as a ‘race to the bottom’ on these rights. To open up the door to this because you just want to see the back of Brexit could see the rights fought for by generations become open to abuse.
I sometimes stop running because of fatigue. I certainly don’t pass legislation that changes the constitution of the country, makes people poorer, damages the integrity of the union, leads to a race to the bottom on worker and environmental standards and possibly leads to a no-deal outcome because of fatigue. Now, more than ever, MPs need to take their time, scrutinise, deliberate and act in the best interests of their constituents.