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Boris Johnson Is Getting a Free Pass on Brexit

Therese Raphael

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- To understand what’s so very odd about this British election campaign, it’s worth recalling where we were a month ago in the Brexit saga. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had returned from Brussels triumphant with a new withdrawal deal. All he needed was Parliament to give its okay — the same Parliament that had rejected his predecessor Theresa May’s deal three times.

The augurs were better this time around. He’d managed to reel back in most of the lawmakers from his Conservative Party who’d left (or, rather, been kicked out) over his Brexit policy. They were adamantly opposed to a no-deal exit from the European Union, but some could be reconciled to his solution, which took the U.K. out of the bloc’s customs union and by a sleight of hand — which created new trade frictions between Northern Ireland and the British mainland — kept the Irish border open. He also had some Labour MPs on side.

That proved enough for his deal to pass a second reading in Parliament, essentially winning “agreement in principle.” But there was a catch: Johnson wanted to give Parliament only three days to examine the deal’s details, barely enough time to peek inside the bag let alone subject its contents to proper scrutiny. Parliament balked and hence we have an election as Johnson tries to secure a majority to force his deal through. 

Fast forward to the campaign, now nearly three weeks in. How much time have we seen any candidate or pundit spend discussing Johnson’s deal — the most consequential piece of British legislation in recent history? Zero, or close to it.

In their head-to-head debate this week, the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn noted that the likelihood of Johnson getting a quick trade deal with the EU that’s advantageous for Britain was nil. But Corbyn didn’t question Johnson in any detail on his divorce deal nor spend time noting that the man who has criticized Corbyn’s tax and spend policies as economic folly is pushing through a deal that brings higher costs and more trade restrictions than the failed one that cost May her job.

This election is ostensibly about Brexit, and Johnson — the polls tells us — may be headed for a solid victory. Yet nobody is talking about the deal he’ll then whisk through Parliament as soon as he’s back in Downing Street.

Partly this is thanks to the decision of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party to stand down candidates in 317 Tory constituencies. While that didn’t promise the Conservatives much in terms of seats they wouldn’t already expect to win, it conceded a crucial argument. It meant Farage wouldn’t be spending time and campaign capital fighting Johnson’s deal, even though he’d dismissed it is not a “real” Brexit. That removed a challenge to Johnson’s deal from the hardest of the hard Brexiters.

The Labour Party has also failed to challenge the agreement, largely because it’s trying to avoid talking about Brexit altogether. Labour’s own Brexit policy — renegotiate the deal with Brussels and then hold a second referendum to decide whether to implement it — is vulnerable. Johnson attacked Corbyn repeatedly for not saying how he’d campaign in that second vote.

Corbyn knows that he must hold on to Leave-voting seats in working class areas, which are being targeted by Johnson and which may find his deal — or any deal — good enough. Long discourses on the impact of Johnson’s agreement on the union with Northern Ireland and Scotland, or on barriers to trade, simply wouldn’t cut through in the frenzy of a campaign anyhow. Instead, Corbyn is focusing on Labour’s plans for a wholesale re-imagining of the British economy along socialist lines, with a much greater share of state ownership, higher taxation and redistribution.

Jo Swinson’s centrist Liberal Democrats are so busy trying to familiarize voters with their new leader (only 44% of Brits know who she is) and pushing their own plan to “Revoke Brexit” that they also haven’t bothered to dig into the details of the deal itself.

Johnson, then, is getting a free ride. If he wins this election, his deal will sail through Parliament with minimal serious scrutiny. No wonder he was so keen for the fog of an election battle to descend.

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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