The unseemly spectacle of the United Kingdom flirting with a breach of international law has served to encapsulate the absurdity of our current political climate, which increasingly resembles the old schoolyard concept of “opposite day”.
Political spectators during the 1990s would have regarded the idea of a joint op-ed from John Major and Tony Blair on Europe as pure fantasy. Political spectators of just a year ago would have been similarly stunned by the thought of former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who branded the previous parliament “dead” and a “disgrace” for its attempts to block this very Brexit deal, filing through the lobby alongside seasoned Brexit rebels. Political spectators of any era would be agog at the idea of a justice secretary talking about breaches of the law he finds “acceptable”.
But such is life in Brexit Britain. Every week norms are shredded, consensuses destroyed, and new cultural wedge issues created.
The primary driver of this is the rise to power of Boris Johnson and subsequent takeover of the Conservative party by populists, who implement their radical vision under the cover provided by a blustery figurehead who rejects the trappings of political ideology or the demands of consistent messaging.
The internal market bill is fully in-keeping with this style of government preferred by Johnson and Dominic Cummings. It’s brash, leaves no room for compromise and reduces every political issue into a simple test of loyalty – you’re either with us, or you’re against us. At one stage it seemed that Geoffrey Cox was staring down the same barrel as previous Tory grandees Sir Nicholas Soames, Kenneth Clarke and Phillip Hammond, having been threatened with suspension from the party. Given that the amendment tabled to head off a rebellion likely only postpones confrontation until a later date, he and other Tory rebels may well do so again.
Once again, facts seem to be of little to no importance. Particularly inconvenient ones, like the fact that the trade deal the UK has just struck with Japan includes even stricter restrictions on state aid than those currently insisted on by the EU. Or perhaps the more basic fact that the Prime Minister himself proclaimed this very deal as a triumph when he signed it last year. Grand gestures and power plays trump substance.
The sacrificial lamb in this mess is ironically the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Despite the bulk of the deal’s issues relating to Northern Ireland, any serious discussion about the Good Friday Agreement has been jettisoned in favour of superficial soundbites about British sovereignty and a tedious back-and-forth over which side is negotiating in good or bad faith.
The preservation of peace in Ireland has not been so easily disregarded elsewhere. Downing Street has all but ignored warnings from across the Atlantic that a breach of international law would be unacceptable and that a US-UK trade deal would only be allowed to pass through Congress if the Good Friday Agreement is left untouched. Another inconvenient fact that will likely come back to haunt the government sooner rather than later.
Little wonder then, that the institutional leaders of the EU, an organisation committed to a fault to the continuous process of compromise and pursuit of the middle ground, can only look on in a mix of horror and incomprehension. They are joined in this revulsion by Britain’s most experienced government operatives – from the Civil Service’s leading lawyer, who joined an increasing cascade of resignations, to every living former Prime Minister. Johnson, Cummings and co. are unlikely to be dissuaded by this latest avalanche of disapproval, and indeed may well jump at the chance to thumb their noses at their outraged liberal opponents.
However, even in a world where it appears increasingly impossible for populist politicians to go “too far”, they may well find that breaking international laws which Britain once played a role in establishing represents the final straw.
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