When Boris Johnson became prime minister just under 2 months ago on 24 July, there were precisely 99 days to his self-imposed deadline of 31 October for his government to complete the extrication of the UK from the EU. Over half of those 99 days have already elapsed, and yet it is no clearer how, when or even if the UK will leave.
Indeed after yet another extraordinary fortnight at Westminster, in which the prime minister lost 6 significant votes, expelled 21 of his fellow conservative MPs from the party, was twice denied the ability to call an election, forced the Speaker to announce his retirement and was ruled to have acted unconstitutionally by the Scottish Court of Sessions, it is not only not clear in which direction the UK is going, it is also not clear who is in control or even whether anyone at all has the power to direct events to a conclusion.
Part of the reason for this is the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. This Act was introduced because the Liberal Democrats, as junior partner in the 2010 Coalition government, did not trust the Conservatives to honour their agreement for the full parliamentary term and feared that David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister of the Coalition, would call an election early to try to secure a majority of his own. So they made it a condition of the coalition agreement that this power was removed from the prime minister.
But rather than make it a one-term law, it was made a permanent part of the British constitution, with the perverse result that now, long after the coalition government it was designed to protect has ended, an early election can only be called if, in effect, both major parties want one. And as the Labour Party have shown, the mere fact that the government wants an early election is enough for the opposition to be suspicious of their motives and deny them it.
As a result the UK has a government which cannot control the House, cannot get its business through, and cannot even resolve the impasse by dissolving itself and calling an early election. Not for the first time, a measure introduced in a hurry to solve a particular problem of the moment has proved to have unexpected consequences years later.
And so Johnson is stuck, in the unenviable position of being both impotent and also unable to escape from his impotency.
It is not that Johnson has not tried to find a way through the Brexit conundrum – one thing history books will not be able to say is that he ducked the challenge he was left by Mrs May. In fact Johnson’s lack of success is quite revealing, because he completes a trio of Conservative prime ministers who have each engaged with the EU over Britain’s membership in their own very different ways, and who have each found it impossible to resolve the matter satisfactorily.
David Cameron tried from the position of a member to win some freedom from the EU to manoeuvre within the rules. In retrospect, with his mixture of charm and patent desire to keep the UK in the EU if he could, he probably did rather better than he might have done, and – as we are discovering from his exquisitely timed memoirs, released quite clearly to maximise Boris Johnson’s current discomfort – his main failings were perhaps to raise expectations in the UK too high, and to underestimate his domestic opponents more than his European ones.
As a result, when he returned from Brussels in early 2016 with some genuine concessions the general reaction from the UK electorate was that they were not enough, and the referendum was duly lost. And the verdict of history can only therefore be that he failed, and so forfeited the premiership.
Theresa May tried the dutiful, detailed but rather dour approach which has characterised so much of her time in politics. In many ways the complete antithesis to Cameron, May employed neither charm nor fellow-feeling with her peers in Europe, and was forced to concede more and more as Michel Barnier drove a very hard bargain over the Withdrawal Agreement. In the end this proved too much for the House of Commons to accept, and the verdict of history can only therefore be that she also failed, and so forfeited the premiership.
And now Boris Johnson has tried yet another approach, that of enthusiasm and bluster. Anyone who has any familiarity with how the EU works will know that it does not often bow before such an approach, and despite brave talk from Downing Street that “agreement is getting closer”, there is little real evidence of it or that Brussels is about to crack. And the likelihood is growing that for the third time in under 4 years and the third consecutive Tory prime minister, the verdict of history will show another failure and another premature end to a premiership.
When three very different UK approaches to the EU in three years, the Diplomatic, the Dutiful and the Destructive, all fail, the unavoidable conclusion is that the fault cannot all be on the UK’s side. The truth is that both sides – not just the UK, but the EU as well – have other priorities, other objectives which they place above the objective of agreeing a harmonious UK withdrawal from the Union. And nowhere is this more obvious than over the question of the Irish border.
Part of the problem is the nature of the border. It is only about 500 km, but it has more crossing points than the entirety of the EU’s eastern border with Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Turkey combined. This makes it a much larger issue than its physical length would suggest; in effect, and even including the borders with Switzerland and Norway, the UK’s departure will just about double the total number of land border crossings the EU has to manage. And as many of the Irish crossing points are minor roads in remote countryside (if not merely different fields in farms that straddle the border), they will be difficult to control.
But the other and more important issue is that for all of the actors involved, the Good Friday Agreement or GFA is “their second best friend”, destined to be offered undying support … until the needs of their true best friend dictate otherwise.
All four actors – ie the EU, the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – could unilaterally solve the problem of the Irish border and preserve the GFA if they wished:
1) The EU could solve the problem of the Irish border and preserve the GFA by suspending its usual border protection and having a porous and incomplete edge to the single market – which it is understandably not prepared to do;
2) The UK could solve the problem of the Irish border and preserve the GFA either by agreeing to have the boundary of the single market in the Irish sea (with Northern Ireland inside the single market and the rest of the UK not), or by the whole of the UK being in the single market – which it is understandably not prepared to do;
3) The Republic could solve the problem of the Irish border and preserve the GFA by leaving the EU with the UK – which it is understandably not prepared to do;
4) Northern Ireland could solve the problem of the Irish border and preserve the GFA by voting to join the Republic (as it is entitled to do under the GFA) – which it is understandably not (yet) prepared to do.
Thus all four actors have it in their power to prove their verbal commitment to the GFA and ensure its continuation with a single decisive action. But none of them will. Instead, all four demand that one of the other parties make the sacrifice necessary to preserve the GFA that they all four swear is essential and indispensable.
And so, a little like the diplomats of 1914 who with their rigidity, lack of imagination and over-developed sense of national honour marched their continent towards the horror of war, the EU and the UK move ever closer to the lose-lose outcome that nobody wanted and nobody benefits from.
The comparison cannot be pushed too far – 2019 is not 1914, and this time the guns will stay silent. But in the nearly 75 years since the end of World War II, and perhaps even in the 100 years since the Treaty of Versailles ended the Great War, it is not easy to think of a collective diplomatic failure by Europe’s statesmen to match what we are seeing unfold.