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Six ways we can be sure Boris is serious

Written by Harry Western

Harry Western argues that despite the promises of Boris Johnson Brexit supporters should avoid euphoria and be very cautious. He outlines six tests for trusting that Boris is serious about implementing a genuine Brexit.

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It seems increasingly likely that the next leader of the Conservatives, and UK Prime Minister, will be Boris Johnson. On the face of it, this looks like good news for supporters of Brexit given Johnson’s record on this issue and his recent statement that the UK will leave the EU by October 31 ‘do or die’.

Yet given the history of the last two years, during which the genuine Brexit envisaged at Lancaster House was watered down to the Brexit in-name-only of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement (WA), Brexit supporters should avoid euphoria and be very cautious. There were key moments over the last two years at which it became clear the May administration was abandoning the Lancaster House vision, and there are key things we believe a Johnson administration must do to prove it is serious about pushing through a real Brexit.

Disown entirely the Treasury’s doom-laden reports of 2016-18 and totally overhaul the Treasury.

The Treasury in 2016 produced two pre-referendum reports predicting short-term and long-term economic disaster if the country voted for Brexit. As we have written, the short-term one has been totally discredited by events, while the long-term one used flawed techniques to hugely exaggerate economic costs. Incredibly, the Treasury was then allowed to produce several more reports after the referendum – continuing to use flawed methodologies and selective use of/manufacturing of evidence to produce doom-laden forecasts of a ‘clean’ Brexit, i.e. one based on a free trade agreement with the EU or trading on WTO rules. That a body that supposedly supplies neutral advice to ministers was allowed to run a partisan campaign against government policy is quite extraordinary and very disturbing – the more so as the Treasury has refused to discuss its work with critical outside experts.

Therefore, a Johnson administration must not only publicly disown the Treasury’s analyses but also needs to bring in root-and-branch reform of the organisation – replacing senior officials and restoring the organisation’s reputations for expertise and neutrality.

Make the right appointments to key positions.

Following the 2017 election, Theresa May surrounded herself with Remain-supporting advisors and kept Remain-supporting ministers such as Chancellor Phillip Hammond in key roles. The result was inevitable – a steady drift to a Remain agenda and the neutering of Brexit.

A Johnson administration must be a clearly Brexit-supporting one and this must show in key appointments. The Chancellor must be a committed Brexiteer, willing to undertake the overhaul of the Treasury mentioned above and promote an economic strategy aimed at making the most of the new freedoms the UK will enjoy after Brexit in the areas of trade, tax and regulation. A clear-out of Remain-inclined officials such as Olly Robbins who have been working against Brexit is needed as is an entirely new team to negotiate with the EU. Ministers involved in this area must be committed to Brexit. Negotiations on trade should not be handled by officials but instead be led by trade experts, including external experts, with the civil service in a supporting and implementing role. It would make sense to have an active role for Crawford Falconer, hired as one of the world’s top trade negotiators but until now frozen out of negotiations. Individuals like Dominic Raab and Steve Baker must have important roles, and there must be no return to ministers and officials conducting negotiations behind the backs of Dexeu ministers. It is also crucial that sensitive ministries like business and agriculture/fisheries are given to Brexiteers and that Johnson’s personal advisors are not drawn from the ranks of Remainers.

No deal preparations must be accelerated and broadened.

No-deal preparations ahead of end-March were more comprehensive than is often understood – including a workable and liberal tariff schedule and series of mini-deals between the UK and EU on aviation and other sectors, and between the UK and EU member states on citizens’ rights. Nevertheless, preparations should have been more open (much in fact has still not been publicised), come earlier and been more properly tailored to helping businesses prepare. It would also have made sense for the government to commit to a big upgrade of UK border infrastructure and transport links connecting to it (lack of movement on this by May’s administration was one of the key tell-tale signs it was not serious about leaving the customs union).

A new Johnson administration needs to act immediately on these points, putting together a proper national changeover plan for borders and firms involved in international trade and committing to funding state-of-the art IT systems and overdue infrastructure upgrades.

Categorically state that May’s Withdrawal Agreement (WA) will not be revived under any circumstances.

The WA has now been clearly rejected by the House of Commons three times – rightly so. Its flaws extend far beyond the unacceptable Northern Ireland backstop provisions: it has rightly been described by leading lawyers as ‘a legally binding death-trap for Brexit’ and as a ‘political Chernobyl disaster’. Similarly, the legally integral Political Declaration (PD) cannot be supported. Among other things, it makes clear that the ‘future’ relationship of the UK with the EU will be based on a customs union – which would make the UK an economic dependency of the EU – and subordinates UK national security to the EU (see below).

A new Johnson administration must denounce the toxic package of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration and make clear these texts will not form the basis of any future agreement with the EU.

End ‘mission creep’ over the Irish border issue.

The laudable aim of avoiding intrusive checks at the Irish border has been allowed to steadily expand – from keeping the border as ‘soft’ as possible to ruling out ‘any checks and controls’. The latter formulation has been used by the EU to claim that effective economic annexation of Northern Ireland (NI) by the EU is the only way ahead. And the EU has even been allowed to go further than this, claiming that huge areas of North-South cooperation (including, absurdly, the protection of certain butterflies) are dependent on EU law and regulations remaining in place in NI.

A new Johnson administration must end ‘mission creep’ over the Irish border and return to the initial concept of making the border as soft as possible subject to the requirement that NI will join the rest of the UK outside the EU customs area and single market. New commissions recently set up to look at ways to manage the border must be fully supported and not be mere window-dressing. Johnson must also make clear that in the absence of EU and Irish cooperation on this issue, the UK will go ahead with unilateral measures to avoid intrusive border checks on the UK side.

End the stealthy ceding of UK defence and security autonomy to the EU.

A number of interlocking defence provisions have been agreed with the EU since November 2016, almost entirely under the radar – provisions which the WA, as a treaty, would copper-fasten irrevocably. The May administration’s reversal of policy in May 2018 has led to the UK signing up, by unscrutinised executive action, to large areas of EU defence and security structures. If ratified by treaty, this would lead to the UK ceding huge areas of defence autonomy to the EU and risk the UK’s vital security cooperation with its ‘Five Eyes’ partners.

A Johnson administration must move rapidly to annul the defence and security giveaways noted above. Changes of personnel are also crucial in this area: Sir Alan Duncan cannot continue at the FCO and officials such as Alastair Brockbank, Angus Lapsley and Bryan Wells need to be replaced. They should be replaced by new security experts such as Sir Richard Dearlove, former Chief of SIS.

It is too early to tell how a Johnson administration will act on these issues and so far the indications from his campaigning for the Conservative leadership are limited. His broad-brush statements have been generally positive, although we are wary of Johnson’s suggestions that the citizens’ rights part of the WA might be revived: in our view that has a number of unpalatable elements and the UK government would do better to pursue additional bilateral deals with individual EU member states. Key for us are that Johnson repudiates the toxic WA/PD package and makes the right key appointments, not least at the Treasury. After the events of the last two years, we will be watching a new Johnson administration very carefully on all the above issues.

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About the author

Harry Western