12 September 2020

The moral and political decay of Boris Johnson’s government has now marked a new low. It has been forced to admit publicly that it is willing to break an important international agreement signed and ratified less than a year earlier. The price of this is already significant and, unless it is stopped, will become much heavier.

Over four years ago I suggested that, due chiefly to his reputation for being a liar, the idea that Boris Johnson could successfully negotiate a divorce settlement with the EU was laughable. It’s true that in the Withdrawal Agreement of October 2019 he did – but only because he succeeded in concealing from Brussels his resolve to break its lengthy Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol at the first opportune moment. (Its many loose ends were to be tied up and differences of interpretation resolved by a specialised committee of a Joint Committee of the two parties established by the Withdrawal Agreement, not decided on by either party unilaterally; see Articles 164-6 and the JC’s rules of procedure at Annex VIII, pp. 510-18.) In the shape of a bill just tabled in the House of Commons – no doubt at the urging of his senior adviser Dominic Cummings, the most dangerous man in the UK,  and without any warning to the EU – this he has now done. He has made clear his plan to ignore parts of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol, thereby jeopardising peace on the island, and made Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement (‘Good faith’) nothing but a bad joke. (My guess is that, knowing Johnson, the EU insisted on this unusual article.) In the process, the British prime minister has provoked the threat of legal action and even trade sanctions from Brussels, and placed in more doubt the possibility of a trade deal with the EU in the few months remaining before the end of the transition period – if he seriously wants such a deal, which few seem to know.

But that’s not all. As powerful voices in his own party – including three former leaders – have pointed out, by openly breaking international law, Johnson’s government has called into question its ability to engage any other government in serious negotiations (for example with the United States on trade); undermined its standing in any campaign to curb disrespect for international law by states such as Russia and Syria (for example on use of chemical weapons); and weakened further its ability to gain the respect of its own citizens for domestic law, which is critical if unpopular measures to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus are to be effective. Such is the price of the latest performance of the Johnson-Cummings-Gove ‘Trump tribute act’, as Rafael Behr has aptly termed it.