Yesterday, we saw the novel sight of a former Conservative premier refusing to support her successor on a critical issue for the government. Theresa May told Parliament:
“The government is acting recklessly and irresponsibly with no thought to the long-term impact on the standing of the United Kingdom in the world. This will lead to untold damage to the UK’s reputation. It puts the future of the UK at risk. And, as a result, with regret, I have to tell the minister I cannot support this bill.”
The issue was Johnson’s decision to propose breaking international law in respect of the EU Withdrawal Agreement. Yet he negotiated this deal himself, and made it the basis of his election manifesto.
It follows a series of disappointments since Johnson promised after the referendum:
“British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and settle down …There will continue to be free trade and access to the single market”.
But 2 years later Johnson, as Foreign Secretary, responded to questions about companies’ concerns over Brexit (at an official Lancaster House reception) by saying, “F*** business”. And as the Financial Times has since noted:
‘“F*** business.” Never was the Brexit manifesto more succinctly captured than in Boris Johnson’s impromptu aside.’”
The about-turn over the EU Withdrawal Agreement clearly raises warning flags for future UK trade negotiations after Brexit. It also has major implications for the promised US trade deal, as the BBC’s N American editor has noted:
“I cannot exaggerate the bewilderment in Washington over what UK government is doing over the Good Friday Agreement. 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?”
There are now just 100 days to got until the end of the Transition Period – and even fewer working days, if one allows for weekends and Christmas holidays. Yet there is still no detailed information from the government on how firms should prepare.
Instead, the government has repeated its ban on the use of the word “Brexit” by ministers – perhaps hoping firms will forget, under the pressures of the pandemic, that the deadline is just round the corner.