Boris Johnson built his second leadership bid in part on excoriating attacks on Theresa May for accepting an internal border within the United Kingdom after repeatedly claiming that such a thing could never be accepted. He then proceeded to accept an internal border himself.
This is not a failing unique to the Prime Minister; the broad bulk of the parliamentary Conservative Party is more or less culpable. Witness Liz Truss’s interview in the Belfast Telegraph where she at once denounces the Protocol whilst defending her decision to sign up to it, apparently on the basis that she thought the text would be changed.
Since then, we have seen the Government march up the hill toward triggering Article 16 several times, only to march back down again on every occasion. Deadlines after which action would have to be taken came and went.
Whatever one’s view of Johnson, whose titles include Minister for the Union, it seems quite clear that it is not his instinct to seek a showdown with Brussels over a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea.
Yet the Prime Minister is no longer a man in his imperial prime, and the situation looks as if it is starting to run beyond his control.
The decision to appoint Liz Truss to the Northern Irish brief after Lord Frost resigned may well come to be viewed as the decisive turning point. The latter was a diligent unionist, and since stepping down has emerged as a vocal critic of Johnson. But his situation in the House of Lords meant that he was never a realistic contender for the Tory crown.
This cannot be said of the Foreign Secretary, who is widely considered a front-runner in the event of a leadership contest (and places highly in our monthly Cabinet League Table). When it comes to the costs and the benefits of a showdown with Brussels, she will be making a very different calculation to her predecessor.
Only a few weeks ago, it was reported that Johnson was lining up with Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak against Truss’s proposals. Yet the Foreign Secretary has clearly carried the day, and this suggests that, for all the fitful efforts to appear as if he’s paddling, the Prime Minister is now caught in a powerful political undercurrent.
It is not necessarily that Conservative MPs are spoiling to a man and woman for a fight. But just as in the last parliament, the better-organised and more rebellious elements of the Tory caucus, most obviously the European Research Group, are disposed towards action. By contrast, the Party’s disaffected left have still yet to make a habit of rebellion; May might have denounced the new Bill in the Commons earlier this week, but she didn’t vote against it.
Perhaps it is biding their time; the Bill will certainly get a mauling in the House of Lords, and should Truss try to press on with it in its current form they can always reject it at third reading. Given that the Government is not obviously prepared for a Christmas trade war in the depths of a cost-of-living crisis, perhaps both she and Johnson might be thankful if their colleagues were to play the villains and spare them the need to follow their current strategy – if there is a strategy – to its conclusion.
But that would merely put both back to square one. The Democratic Unionists would not return to government at Stormont, an internal border would continue to undermine the integrity of the Union and the British internal market, and the ERG and its ‘star chamber’ would now be agitating against them.
Alternatively, perhaps the Bill was always meant to be a negotiating tactic. That was certainly implied by Truss’s suggestion – which would have completely undermined the Government’s claim that the legislation was justified by ‘necessity’ – that it would be held back until the DUP restored power-sharing in Belfast.
If so, Johnson’s track record weighs against such a strategy. Nobody has good reason to take him seriously. The DUP were certainly right, at least on tactical grounds, not to throw away their principle bargaining chip in exchange for a mere promissory note from Number Ten. Brussels have every reason to expect the Prime Minister to fold, as he has in the past.
Thus, as is so often the way with these things, both sides may be sliding towards a confrontation for which neither is keen, and which perhaps neither really thinks will happen.