Late on Wednesday afternoon Boris Johnson addressed the nation from Downing Street, flanked by Union Jacks. It was a familiar scene, but he had a new, serious message. Coronavirus cases were rising fast across the UK, doubling every seven days. Public health officials from all corners of the country had reported horrifying rises, particularly among the young. Schools had re-opened in England ten days earlier. The government was urging people back to work. And university campuses were beginning to fill up for the new academic year. Ministers and Public Health England knew that within days, Covid-19 cases could be rising much faster still and that hospital admissions could soon be on a rapid upward curve, as they already were in France and Spain.
The Prime Minister had been stung by accusations that he had acted too late to prepare the country and curb the spread of the virus back in March, and he would not allow such criticism to be made again. New limits would be introduced on the size of gatherings, and the full force of the law would be used to enforce them. “In England from Monday we are introducing the rule of six,” he said. “You must not meet socially in groups of more than six and if you do you will be breaking the law.” Those who disobeyed the orders, he added, could be fined or even arrested.
But Tory MPs were anxious and many parliamentarians in both the Commons and Lords saw great irony in this Prime Minister’s insistence on complying with rules. Other MPs were fuming that they had not been allowed to debate the new Covid restrictions, about which the media had been informed first. They felt ignored and overlooked as well as worried. One senior Tory MP, Desmond Swayne, had risen in the Chamber earlier on Wednesday to complain that bypassing parliament was completely unacceptable in a crisis like this – a view shared by a clearly incensed Speaker Lindsay Hoyle. What could possibly be done “to restrain the Government’s ability to govern by order without debate?” Swayne asked.
The spike in Covid-19 cases was not, however, the only crisis besetting Johnson, his ministers, the Tory Party and the country, as he rose to speak. The week past has been one during which two huge but unrelated problems have coincided, intersected and fed off one another.
The other concerned Brexit, which has shot back to the top of the agenda as the end of the transition period on December 31 approaches. After four and a half years of often fruitless post referendum negotiations with Brussels, they resumed on Monday amid talk of deadlock and the rising likelihood of an economically disastrous No Deal outcome.
Behind the scenes in Downing Street, however, the three prime Tory movers behind Brexit, Johnson, his most senior aide Dominic Cummings and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove had hatched a new plan, a gambit that would see the UK break with parts of the Withdrawal Agreement that Johnson had signed so enthusiastically back in January (he had described it then as a “fantastic moment”). There were problems, they had belatedly realised, that related to provisions in the Northern Irish Protocol which could impede the free movement of goods across the Irish sea. Reading from a written note, which proved his words had been prepared, approved and cleared at the top, the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis stunned the Commons on Tuesday, admitting that ministers would use the internal market bill, which has its second reading in the Commons tomorrow to make the changes, which were so important that they would be required to break the law to put things right. “Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way,” Lewis said. “We’re taking the powers to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect … in a certain very tightly defined circumstance.”
With a second coronavirus wave approaching and the Covid 19 testing system under terrible strain just when it was needed most, was this an attempt to rally and distract the country in a new patriotic anti-European venture? If so it backfired terribly. In an already restive Westminster, and in Brussels, Berlin, Dublin and Washington, Johnson’s actions were met with disbelief. The Prime Minister was asking people to comply with the law at home, but was himself trashing it abroad. Three former Tory leaders John Major, Theresa May and Michael Howard went public, questioning whether the UK’s word would ever be trusted again on the world stage. Howard, the most ardent of eurosceptic grandees, rose in the Lords to ask: “How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?” Tory Brexiters were making common cause with Tory Remainers for the first time in decades.
Jonathan Jones, the head of the Whitehall legal department, promptly quit in protest. Former Treasury permanent secretary Lord Nick Macpherson echoed concerns across Whitehall saying that “for anybody who cares about the rule of law, this is deeply disturbing. ” Commentators from left, right and centre questioned how any government could behave in such a way. Alex Thomas, a former civil servant and now the Institute for Government’s programme director said: “If reports as to why Jonathan Jones has resigned are true there are HUGE questions for the Attorney General and Lord Chancellor. Will they try to draw a different line on the law?”
One senior MP on the 1922 committee, himself a committed Brexiteer, said he would vote against the internal market Bill which ministers will introduce to the Commons tomorrow to try to effect the changes. Tory MPs warned that there could be a large rebellion with dozens abstaining before a bigger crisis erupts later in the Bill’s parliamentary passage. “There is no way I can support breaking international law. If someone like Michael Howard, the grandfather of euroscepticism, speaks out, then that means something is not right here,” said another senior Tory. “This is ministers of the crown saying they don’t respect the law. That is not something I can defend to my constituents.”
Senior Labour officials said privately that they believed that Johnson was deliberately trying to wreck the formal talks process. “I think he wants that to fail so it comes down to political leaders, so he and Merkel have to sort it out.”
This weekend the row is not abating. On Friday evening Johnson held a chaotic zoom meeting with Tory MPs, but his connection failed mid-way through and Michael Fabricant filled a ten minute pause by singing Rule Brittania. Before the technical glitch cut him off Johnson said what he was doing with the internal market bill was a “total no brainer”. It was “vital to protecting the integrity of our country.” Action to over-ride the existing agreement with the EU was “vital if we want to prevent a foreign or international body from having the power to break up our country.”
In an article in the Daily Telegraph yesterday Johnson upped the ante further, accusing the EU of wanting to impose “a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea” that could stop the transport of food from Britain to Northern Ireland. But the Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, who has tabled an amendment to the Bill to give parliament a veto over the plan, said he was not reassured and neither were plenty of others. If this was a problem now, why had Johnson and Gove not spotted it before before signing off on the deal with the EU months ago?
Abroad the damage had been done. Despite daily contacts between UK and EU teams in Whitehall and Brussels over the summer, news of Johnson’s Brexit gambit came as a shock when it first reached the Belgian capital on Sunday evening.
“Word came about a Financial Times story and we just waited for shit to hit the fan”, said one source. “There wasn’t any notice at all. We knew where the UK had concerns. We knew there was a bill coming up. But we didn’t think there would be anything in it to concern us. They didn’t tell us anything.”
The withdrawal agreement had been tortuously put together. The Northern Ireland protocol, keeping the province in the EU’s single market and putting a customs border in the Irish sea, had been grudgingly accepted by Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, the agreement’s most vociferous critic, in the wake of Johnson’s thumping win at last December’s general election. “Why would you stir all that up now?”, asked one EU diplomat as the bill was published on Wednesday.
When the European commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, a Slovak, met Michael Gove in London for emergency talks mid week he set the UK government a three week deadline to remove the contentious parts of the internal market bill. “Gove was unrepentant”, said one source. “But if those parts of the bill that break international law are still there in October there won’t be a deal”, predicted an official in Brussels. There were threats of legal action from Brussels. “We haven’t a clue what their (the UK’s) strategy is and that is probably what they are hoping. But it might also be that they don’t know yet. And that’s the biggest worry,” added a source.
The trade and security negotiations continue next week with Brussels determined not to be the ones to walk out. “Both sides are extremely polite and they did their work last week well considering that someone had effectively set fire to the building”, said another EU official. “But the three week deadline stands. People say that state aid and fisheries are the biggest stumbling blocks to a deal. It isn’t. It is trust. “And we have seen how far we can trust the British government”.
Germany’s ambassador to the UK Andreas Michaelis also broke with the normal restrained diplomatic language used by his country. “In more than 30 years as a diplomat I have not experienced such a fast, intentional and profound deterioration of a negotiation”, he said. “ If you believe in partnership between the UK and the EU like I do then don’t accept it.”
Inside the Irish government there was equal dismay – but hope that it would all turn out to be bluff. The Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, vented Ireland’s “very strong concerns” in a 30-minute call with Johnson on Wednesday. “This is no way to behave in terms of international relations,” said Martin. If trade talks between London and Brussels collapse Ireland’s economy will take a big hit, with significant tariffs on many Irish exports to the UK. The other concern is the border and Northern Ireland. The foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said Northern Ireland was “too fragile” to be used as a pawn. “I would caution anyone who is thinking about playing politics with Northern Ireland on Brexit.”
Meanwhile in Washington Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, said there would be “absolutely no chance” of a US-UK trade deal passing through Congress if the Good Friday Agreement was undermined by the row. “If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress,” Ms Pelosi added. “The Good Friday Agreement is treasured by the American people and will be proudly defended in the United States Congress.”
Jon Sopel, the BBC’s Washington correspondent summed up the bemusement there. “I cannot exaggerate the bewilderment in Washington over what UK government is doing over #GoodFridayAgreement. Why, a senior official asked me, is Britain doing something that will lead to a no deal Brexit, and result in no trade deal with the US either?”
ONLY a few weeks ago, when Covid-19 numbers were falling, the Prime Minister had expressed his hope in a bullish Downing statement that if all went according to plan the country could be returning to something close to pre-Covid normality before Christmas. With a Brexit deal done by then, the UK and its economy would be able to move forward. Post Brexit and post Covid 19 Britain would become Global Britain.
But as has so often been the case with this government, when dealing with both the pandemic and the UK’s exit from the EU, false hopes had been raised, only for harsher, colder realities to bite. Now, the way Boris Johnson is conducting the whole process of government at home and abroad is compounding the nation’s problems. Back in January when the Prime Minister signed the Withdrawal Agreement he was full of optimism. “We can now move forward as one country – with a government focused upon delivering better public services, greater opportunity and unleashing the potential of every corner of our brilliant UK, while building a strong new relationship with the EU as friends and sovereign equals.”
Nine months on, as he implores people to obey new rules on Covid-19, yet himself disregards international law, faith in his ability to deliver on those heady objectives is being questioned more than ever – not just at home but across the world.