In another life, Boris Johnson might have spent his days trying out the handles of parked cars. The British Prime Minister is a chancellor, a man who believes in pushing his happiness. He cares little about the consequences because he trusts himself to come out of any scratch and conducts his politics with a smile as if we are all joking. It was a winning formula.
Yet there are costs, as Tory MPs who read unflattering news reports about their outside earnings can now attest. They know they have the Owen Paterson standards debacle to thank for the unwelcome investigation. Johnson’s half-formed whimpering to dilute the independent inquiry of MPs and get his colleague Paterson off the hook for blatant violations of parliamentary rules has caused a painful Newtonian setback.
Johnson’s swift retreat also reminds his troops that, despite all the Churchillian rhetoric, he is often the first to head for the hills when he realizes that the battle is no longer worth it. This is not always a weakness. Johnson feels no obligation to defend a losing position. But at least two Tory MPs are now facing calls for new standards inquiries because he did not play the consequences of his gambit.
It offers greater lessons for both its allies at home and its opponents in the EU as it embarks on a new battle with Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which, to the anger of Unionists, creates a trade barrier between Britain and the EU. province.
It does not matter that he knew how important it was when he signed it, for Johnson it is unfinished business and he is determined to change it. He and his Brexit minister, Lord Frost, have played a weak hand well so far. The protocol undoubtedly had adverse effects on trade between Northern Ireland and Britain and their uncompromising stance ensured concessions on goods controls, which they could argue would not have been realized otherwise. Another leader might have already declared victory, but the first lesson is that Johnson does not throw up his hand while there are still cards in the deck.
There are many in the current row that fit his style. For most of the year, he made the threat to activate Article 16 of the protocol, which allows a party to suspend part of the agreement if it causes serious “social or economic damage”. What should be an escape valve for specific problems is seen by Johnson as a lever to try to rewrite the agreement.
This moment is moving closer and has provoked war-torn retaliatory threats from the EU, although Frost said the UK “is not there yet”. But if and when Johnson starts the process, he can start small and make noise. The mechanisms allow for delays before each EU response, which means it could withdraw if the price, whether targeted retaliation rates or more disruptive checks at Calais, seem too high. Even the core option driven by Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney – to end the UK / EU trade agreement – requires a year’s notice, which gives Johnson time, but at the cost of economic uncertainty.
The second lesson is that Johnson will retire when he is overwhelmed. The history of his Brexit negotiations is to speak loudly and then give in. The battle over the protocol underscores exactly how thoroughly he invaded when he signed it in 2019. A year later, he accepted a trade agreement that provided few benefits. Despite all his fighting to walk away without an agreement, Johnson never did. As its core demands go beyond what the EU is prepared to allow, it is a reasonable bet that the same will be true again.
The third unfortunate lesson for the UK, therefore, is that the sooner the EU responds with excessive force, the sooner it will withdraw. Some in the EU see this clearly and speak of the need to show “escalation dominance”. Johnson will not long endanger voices on the British mainland for a trade war over Northern Ireland. His allies can applaud a prime minister fighting Brussels, but they and the media can quickly turn in the face of economic damage and empty shelves.
That means his own cheerleaders have to give him the room to retreat when he’s ready. And here’s another warning from the Paterson saga. While the blame lies with Johnson, a common factor in Brexit agitation and the Paterson episode are those Tory MPs, the “Spartans” which trains him to hardened positions. Johnson fears and appeases this rebellious old guard of former ministers and lifelong backbenchers – those who were and never were – who destroyed Theresa May.
Driven by a rebellious mindset, they convinced themselves and Johnson that Paterson was the victim of an anti-Brexit, left-wing standards commissioner and a manipulated process – rather than his own folly. Since the biggest risk for Johnson’s premiership will come when his MPs no longer see him as a winner, there is a price to pay for alienating voters to appease unreliable allies who often have poor political judgment.
Johnson creates a pleasure to stab the EU bear. But it jeopardizes economic and political consequences that, as with the Paterson case, far outweigh the potential gains. The danger is more miscalculation. The EU, especially France, is losing patience with a man he considers a bad marriage actor. It is also capable of making mistakes, pushing him into a corner with no line of refuge.
Johnson will continue to try the car’s handlebars until it’s against his interests. There is, of course, a price to be paid in instability in Northern Ireland. But where he is handed in, he will keep pushing. This is not a bad tactic for the weaker party, as long as he knows when to walk away.