Sam McBride: Boris Johnson’s past dishonesty on the Irish Sea border has present consequences – how do we know if he’s now being truthful?
It is for good reason that misleading the House of Commons was once seen as the gravest of political sins.
In explaining the importance of ministerial accountability to parliament, Erskine May, the bible of parliamentary procedure, quotes from a 1997 motion passed by both houses of parliament.
The motion – which came not in a golden age of democratic rectitude in the Palace of Westminster but one of corruption and sleaze – said that “it is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”
Such high standards now seem almost quaint in a government led by a man who has such a reputation for dishonesty that revelations he has lied no longer appear to dent his popularity.
But truth matters; not just for moral reasons or because it has some esoteric theoretical value, but because at least some basic commitment to the concept of truth is required for democracy to properly function.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis and the government’s key Brexit minister, Lord Frost, addressed a webinar on the Northern Ireland Protocol which was hosted by the think tank Policy Exchange.
I asked both men this question: “At the time when the protocol was approved by Parliament, civil service assessments were clear that it meant a major trade barrier in the Irish Sea, but the government denied this. The Treasury assessment said it would mean NI being ‘symbolically separated from the Union’, the ‘economic union undermined’, it would be ‘highly disruptive’ to the NI economy and ‘high street goods are likely to increase in price’. You now say you are surprised those things you were told would happen are actually happening.
“Can you now accept publicly that the government was profoundly dishonest about what it had agreed? If not, why should anyone trust you now?”
It was a fairly straightforward and obvious question, but Lord Frost responded elliptically that “it is a bit more complicated than that; we have always been clear that there were processes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland...we were always clear that there would be processes that were there to protect the single market, and support the other aspects of the protocol. That is part of the deal.
“The issue is how those processes are to be operated and in October 2019 a lot of that was still unclear...I think it’s a bit more complicated than that, if I’m honest.”
That explanation is untrue. Far from having been “always clear” that there would be GB-NI border processes, Boris Johnson said the opposite. Sky News journalist Sophy Ridge confronted Mr Johnson in December 2019 with his government’s leaked assessment that it had agreed an Irish Sea border.
He said there would “absolutely not” be checks, claimed the deal differed from that of Theresa May because “it allows the whole of the UK to come out of the EU – including Northern Ireland”, and added: “There’s no question of there being checks on goods going NI-GB or GB-NI”.
Those who see truth as an old fashioned concept or believe the end justifies the means may wonder why any of this matters now. The problem is that Mr Johnson lied about this issue so casually, so clearly and without a hint of embarrassment that it is now genuinely difficult to tell if he is telling the truth.
The substance of Thursday’s remarks from Lord Frost and Mr Lewis was rhetorically robust; that was in keeping with the tough tone of an article both men penned for The Irish Times last weekend.
But regardless of one’s view on the protocol, how can anyone know whether this is simply a repeat of what this government has done before – saying one thing while brazenly doing another? Past dishonesty has present consequences.
Some in the EU believe that Mr Johnson is finalising a radical move – not to trigger Article 16 of the protocol which would formally suspend many of its provisions, but rather to simply stop implementing some of the measures which the protocol requires. The most likely manifestation of that would be the UK halting some checks currently taking place, or those which have not yet begun.
That would provoke fury in Brussels, hardening the EU’s sense that Mr Johnson is slippery and that negotiating with him is pointless because he cannot be relied upon to implement what he has agreed.
It would also escalate tensions with Washington, where the Biden administration has been forthright in support of the protocol – despite overwhelming unionist opposition.
Any ministerial order to civil servants to abandon checks which until now have been required would reopen festering wounds between this government and the civil service.
When Mr Lewis threatened to break international law “in a limited and specific way”, there was a mini-mutiny in parts of the civil service.
An attempt last year by agriculture minister Edwin Poots to instruct his officials to stop work on building border posts ended in him U-turning after civil servants obtained their own legal advice that such an order was unlawful and so unenforceable.
But even if all of those issues are not obstacles to checks being halted, such an outcome would not resolve the current impediments to trade between GB and NI because most of those are not about the checks themselves.
Only a tiny fraction of lorries are pulled over and searched, but every load must complete customs declarations before boarding – and a plethora of other paperwork if the load contains animal products, plants or a host of other regulated substances.
It is the burden of that paperwork which is the greatest trade barrier. Despite the government sinking hundreds of millions of pounds in schemes designed to simplify the complexity of what it has imposed, the scale of what is involved is even bewildering to some experienced freight handlers.
It would be difficult for the government to abandon the requirements for mass form-filling because it knew the scale of this burden from the outset. That is why it spent hundreds of millions of pounds to try to mitigate what was so obviously going to be an enormous burden on business. It cannot claim it is a surprise.
The EU would probably respond to this with more court action – which would be slow, and so therefore would prolong the legal uncertainty for businesses wanting clarity about the trading environment.
Ultimately, that is likely to end in a trade war – a far better alternative than the shooting wars which the EU was created to prevent, but messy and costly.
At some point, Mr Johnson is likely to face a calculation about whether he cares enough about Northern Ireland unionists to sacrifice some of the economic prosperity of the part of the UK which elects him. His ministers are telling unhappy unionists that he is prepared to be tough with the EU in order to address their concerns.
Those words would then be backed up by actions if the government takes the measures which it now seems are being considered.
But if Mr Johnson is doing so half-heartedly, only to back down later, it could be dangerous. To already angry loyalists, the idea that he would betray them a second time – and for filthy lucre, effectively trading the Irish Sea border for the prosperity of Great Britain – is combustible.
Mr Johnson has professed shock at the fact checks which he said would not happen are taking place at the Irish Sea border which he said would not exist.
The Secretary of State, who began the year pronouncing that there is “no Irish Sea border”, continues to put all of the blame for what has happened on the EU, rather than accepting that his government quite simply misled people about what it had agreed.
When Mr Johnson agreed in 2019 to the Irish Sea border he described it as part of an “excellent deal” necessary to “get Brexit done”. What was expedient then has consequences now.
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