‘Thin’ deal still a victory for PM

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Boris Johnson’s final Brexit deal, announced on Christmas Eve, falls short in many respects and will, according to economists, leave the UK economically disadvantaged, yet it still represents an important political victory for the Prime Minister. 

In the new agreement Britain and the EU will enter a free trade arrangement in which British exports will not be discriminatorily taxed. In his speech Johnson described it as a “Canada Style” deal worth £668 billion per year. Britain will leave the Customs Union and Single Market and henceforth will have complete sovereignty over British . The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy has proved a major source of contention throughout the Brexit process, from January 1st Britain will leave the CFP and by 2026 will have the right to exclude all EU boats from British waters. 

“We were told we could not have our cake and eat it.” (Boris Johnson)

Boris has thrown the full force of his rhetoric behind the deal, describing it as a “Cakeist Treaty”. He claims the deal executes the exact goal of Brexiteers; to retain the economic benefits of the EU whilst regaining British sovereignty. According to Johnson the two parties will continue to be:

“joined by friendship, commerce, history, interests and values, whilst respecting one another’s freedom of action and recognising that we have nothing to fear if we sometime choose to do things differently.” 

However, this is far from the friction-free deal initially promised. The closer one gets to the detail the clearer the compromise becomes. Outside the Conservative party there is little feeling of this Cake-ism. According to the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisation (NFFO) Johnson has “bottled it” on fishing quotas, feeling let down by the 25% cut on EU access when compared to Johnson’s initial request of an 80% reduction of EU activity. While from 2026 the EU can be excluded this would give the EU the right to impose protectionist tariffs against UK exports. Nigel Farage described this as a “rotten deal” for fisheries. 

Priti Patel has said that the UK will be “more secure through firmer and fairer border control.” She argues the ending of freedom of movement and a streamlined extradition process will make the UK one of the “safest countries in the world.” However, there are concerns from police chiefs. According to Steve Rodhouse, director of operations for the National Crime Agency, the UK’s exclusion from the European Arrest Warrant and real-time access from key police databases means that “investigations could take longer, and it could mean that serious criminals are not held to account as quickly.” While this deal will increase control over UK borders, it will act as a hindrance to the efficiency of important police investigations. 

The exclusion of the UK from the Erasmus student exchange programme is a major loss but Boris has claimed continued participation was too expensive to justify. Although a replacement scheme is to be set up, known as the Turing Scheme, it is far from a like-for-like replacement. Promising only £100,000,000 to the programme, the 35,000 students the Government wishes to involve will thus only receive £2,850 towards their studies across the year. The Government’s decision to intentionally opt-out of a well established and mutually beneficial scheme on the basis of economic cost-benefit is a short-sighted decision that belies the importance of academic and cultural exchange to the “friendship… interests and values” Johnson states he wishes to continue with the EU. Similarly criticised is the Government’s failure to secure visa-free travel for musicians. The petition to secure visa-free travel for musicians and creatives has now reached 200,000 signatures with Tim Burgess amongst some of its high profile signatories. The petition’s creator argues touring “will become impossible” for many under the new legislation. 

The most important shortcoming of the trade agreement is the presence of considerable non-tariff barriers. Whilst UK goods cannot be taxed, exporters will now be required to complete customs checks and go through what critics have described as “a mountain” of red tape. In places, these checks and forms can be both time consuming and expensive. This is one of the reasons that economists predict, even with this new deal, the economy will be 4% smaller than if the UK remained in the Customs Union. Michael Gove has warned businesses should expect some “bumpy moments” in the transition, a statement that SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford has described as “the understatement of the century”. Further, despite services making up 80% of the UK economy, the agreement makes no formal provision for the service sector, most notably failing to reach an agreement for the EU’s future relationship with The City. This deal, therefore, is far from comprehensive. 

“A thin deal is better than no deal” (Sir Keir Starmer) 

Despite passing the Commons with a majority of 448, these exclusions and compromises have driven widespread Parliamentary criticism. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer described it as a “thin deal”, a deal that “does not provide adequate protections” for jobs, manufacturing, financial services or workplace rights. There appears to be a cross-party agreement that this “is not the deal the government promised.” The SNP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have all come out in criticism of the terms of the deal. Blackford has described it as a “disaster for Scotland”, with the Holyrood Parliament rejecting the deal. The Prime Minister will once again break the established Sewel Convention by which devolved consent is usually obtained when Westminster wishes to legislate on matters usually within the competencies of the devolved assemblies. This is perhaps the greatest political difficulty for the Prime Minister going forwards. Nicola Sturgeon is clear, in light of Brexit “It’s time to chart our own future as an independent, European, nation.” Given the expected economic impact of Brexit and the consistent Scottish support for the Remain vote, how far Johnson can contain Nicola Sturgeon’s ambitions and placate Scottish nationalists may become vital to his next three years. Ruth Davidson has accused the SNP of “weaponising the referendum”, this Brexit deal has done scarce little to reduce these tensions. 

The question of Scottish independence may come to dominate the post-Brexit political environment

In spite of this Parliamentary criticism and the Scottish tensions thrown up, this deal still represents a major political victory for the Prime Minister. Starmer has been critical of the details of the deal yet was absolute in his assertion that the Labour MPs must vote in favour of the bill. The Prime Minister’s deal avoids the perceived catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit and as such binds the hands of its critics. Ultimately, only one Labour MP voted against the deal. In the game of political posturing this puts Johnson in a real position of strength. Arguments against leaving the EU entirely have fallen by the wayside and further criticism of the specifics of the deal are greatly undermined by the massive parliamentary support the bill has received. The Labour leader has positioned himself in order to hold the government to account in future, stating Labour’s support is a last resort. Starmer stated, “Let me be absolutely clear — and say directly to the government — up against no deal, we accept this deal, but the consequences of it are yours.” But in the cut and thrust of Parliamentary bravado and popular politics there is (unfortunately) scarcely time or weight given to the legalistic precision of Starmer’s approach; emphatic results like this will strengthen the PM and the opposition’s nuanced criticisms will likely be overpowered. 

Boris Johnson overplays his hand when he says Britain is having its cake and eating it. This deal is very clearly a deal of compromise and one that leaves a huge number of vital questions to be addressed. As of yet, there is no framework for foreign policy cooperation, no agreement on the vital service industry, and the immediate changes to control over British waters is minimal. However, this is the only cake on offer and in forcing his political allies and opponents to eat it, Johnson has placed himself in a position of great strength going forward.

Image: Number 10 via Flickr

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