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Boris Johnson Gets a Dose of British Justice

Therese Raphael

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Having denied Theresa May support for her Brexit deal three times, Parliament voted in favor of her successor Boris Johnson’s version by a majority of 30 on Tuesday night. It was a significant victory for the prime minister. It was, however, more first season finale than the end of the Brexit saga.

What Parliament gave with one hand, it took away with the other — and there was a certain justice to that.

In a second vote, the House of Commons rejected Johnson’s demand that the opaque 115-page bill that incorporates the new treaty into U.K. law be rushed through in three days. Johnson tried to bully lawmakers into accepting his timetable. If the ballot didn’t go his way, he would pull the legislation and seek a general election. It was now or never.

Except it wasn’t. Parliament refused to blink and voted against him. The whole point of Brexit was to return sovereignty to Westminster. “If you are taking back control, then show that you are worthy to exercise that control. And all I am asking for is a little patience,” said Rory Stewart, a former Tory lawmaker who now sits as an independent. A reasonable request given the historic importance of the legislation.

Brexit exhaustion aside, there was no real rush other than to help Johnson fulfill his own pledge to quit the European Union on Oct. 31. He has already had to submit to Parliament and request a Brexit extension from Brussels until the end of January, 2020. The EU will have to think hard about how to implement that after Tuesday’s second vote showed Johnson’s deal wasn’t going to make it into British law this week. But there’s little doubt that Brussels will accommodate Parliament’s request; it doesn’t want a no-deal split, or the blame for one.

Neither does Johnson want the U.K. to crash out, if his statement on Tuesday night is anything to go by: “One way or another, we will leave the EU with this deal.” Gone are his former threats of no deal, which no longer serve a political purpose now he has a deal that commands a parliamentary majority.

All of this sounds rather positive, except that the deal itself has a long way to go. And there’s the continued possibility that Johnson will abort and pursue an election. However it happens, though, whether a longer legislative timetable is agreed now or Johnson returns to Parliament with the deal after winning an election, this deal is so fiendishly convoluted that it really does need close inspection. 

First off, one has to give Johnson credit for getting this far. He has pulled off three major political feats: winning the Tory leadership contest (making him prime minister), clinching an 11th-hour Brexit deal with the EU that many thought impossible, and prevailing in Tuesday night’s vote to approve the legislation implementing his deal — the first time any Brexit plan has won over a majority of MPs. Timing has been on his side, but it takes real skill to have achieved even one of these things. To have accomplished all three in just under three months is remarkable.

Less miraculous, though, are the terms of his deal. It looks like a worse agreement than May’s in many ways. Both Johnson and May promised three things: to keep the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland open; to make sure Northern Ireland was still treated just like the rest of the U.K.; and to take Britain out of the EU’s customs union so it could do its own trade deals. Both managed two out of three only.

May gave in on the third pledge, agreeing to a plan that would keep the whole of the U.K. in the EU’s customs union until a better way could be found to avoid a hard border with Ireland. Brexiters hated it. Johnson has given in on the second promise, agreeing to a de facto border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. to make sure Britain didn’t have to stay in the customs union. His deal is semi-permanent and messy, and his erstwhile allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party are apoplectic. Business isn’t much happier.

The new border in the Irish Sea will mean substantial regulatory checks for food and agriculture. Then there are the customs arrangements. Exporters from the British mainland to Northern Ireland will probably have to fill out a customs declaration with 50 fields, requiring a 10-digit number for each separate product to determine the applicable tariff if it's deemed their products are “at risk” of ending up in the EU.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay has admitted that companies in Northern Ireland will also have to fill out export declaration forms when sending goods to the rest of Britain. It’s as if a new U.S. law required companies exporting from Virginia into Washington or Maryland into Delaware to fill out customs declarations.

Even if all of these things worked smoothly, there’s a danger that as Britain’s regulatory environment diverges, the border will harden and Northern Ireland’s bonds with the rest of the U.K. will weaken. It won’t take long, too, for Scottish nationalists to look at the new arrangements as bolstering the case for their country’s independence.

For the U.K. as a whole, there isn’t great news here either. The government refused to release its economic analysis of the deal until after the vote, but the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank reckons Johnson’s plan would leave the economy substantially worse off than May’s deal.

Lawmakers might decide all of these costs are acceptable, or at least better than the alternative of further delay and uncertainty. But it’s right that they take a little more than a few days to determine that.

To contact the author of this story: Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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