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Boris Johnson Still Has a Bazooka at His Disposal

Therese Raphael

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It turned out last week that the key to getting a new Brexit agreement in Brussels wasn’t so complicated: Boris Johnson simply gave in on a couple of major negotiating red lines and then declared victory. He’ll have a much harder time repeating the trick in Parliament this week.

The price of Johnson’s concessions to the European Union became clear on Saturday. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose interests were sold out by the British prime minister so he could strike the deal, gave their backing to a parliamentary amendment that vastly complicates Johnson’s task. The Letwin amendment, named after the former Conservative lawmaker who drafted it, says the new Brexit deal isn’t done until Parliament passes the legislation to implement it.

That had two effects. First, it forced Johnson to ask the EU for an extension to the Oct. 31 deadline, as required by a law that he said he’d rather “die in a ditch” than comply with. Second, it has set up another epic battle between the executive and Parliament that will determine whether Britain leaves on Halloween. It might also determine the shape of future U.K.-EU customs arrangements, whether there’s a second referendum and even the timing of new elections.

The new battlefield is over the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which would turn Johnson’s agreement into British law, including things such as controversial new customs arrangements and institutional frameworks, among many others.

Unlike the U.K.-EU deal itself (a formal treaty), the withdrawal bill can be amended by Parliament. Given the bitter opposition to Johnson’s administration from many lawmakers, expect it to be larded with attempted amendments to tie his hands in implementing the new treaty. The two most important ones being discussed are an amendment from the opposition Labour Party that would seek to keep the U.K. in the EU customs union and one to put the deal to a referendum. Johnson would probably abort the effort rather than submit to either.

For those who just got their heads around the “Irish backstop” — the guarantee in former prime minister Theresa May’s deal to keep the Irish border fully open — my sympathies. Her backstop would have effectively locked the whole of the U.K. into the EU customs union (anathema to Brexiters), while Johnson’s deal effectively does that only for Northern Ireland, to the displeasure of his erstwhile allies in the DUP. There was no wriggling out of May’s backstop in a way that satisfied Brexiters without exactly these consequences.

The central feature of Johnson’s deal is a permanent customs arrangement that leaves Northern Ireland in the U.K.’s customs regime legally but that creates a complex customs system in the Irish Sea between the U.K. mainland and Northern Ireland. 

The system will require the filling in of detailed customs forms for each good being transported from the mainland to Northern Ireland that might end up in Ireland and the EU. And it creates an entirely untested system by which EU tariffs would be paid for those goods, and then refunded if they didn’t go to the EU in the end.

And people thought the backstop was a brain twister.

This arrangement imposes a new barrier on mainland-Northern Ireland trade, however much Johnson tries to dress it up as a simple matter of box-ticking. As such, it drives a cart and horses through the DUP’s one main demand: that Northern Ireland be treated no differently from the rest of Britain. It would be surprising, to put it mildly, if the famously recalcitrant DUP moved at all.

Johnson has two strong cards, however. First, momentum. Such is the general exhaustion with Brexit (and fear that further delay will see it never delivered) that his parliamentary support is already greater than any registered for May’s deal. The European Research Group of hard-core Brexiters, most of the Conservative moderates he booted out of the party for defying him and some Labour MPs seem to be on board. His deal could squeak through if given the chance.

The prime minister had hoped to keep the momentum going with a vote on Monday to show his deal could pass Parliament. But the House of Commons speaker John Bercow disallowed the motion. Tuesday will see the government seek approval from lawmakers for the so-called second reading of the withdrawal bill — which would be a huge win for Johnson. If it passes, a second vote would follow immediately on an expedited three-day timetable to try to get the legislation through this week. If his attempt to speed up the legislative process fails, then it will be up to the EU to offer an extension.

If the legislation does indeed become bogged down or unacceptable amendments are attached, Johnson would probably play his second card and move to get a general election agreed this week, to be held at the end of November. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may run out of excuses to deny him a vote, especially once the EU approves Johnson’s request for an extension.

Another bit of good news for Johnson: Polls suggest that Leave voters express a greater preference for his deal than a no-deal exit, which might just banish his fears of losing support at the ballot box to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Things could change once the withdrawal bill gets an airing, but Johnson’s election strategy, as I wrote Saturday, is now clear: It’s his deal or no deal.

Having retreated once in Brussels, the withdrawal bill may be a hill Johnson can’t hold either. But once again, he could fall back, this time asking Britain’s electorate to arm him for the next battle with a bazooka: a parliamentary majority.

(This column was updated with details of the plan to expedite the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.)

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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