The Neverending Brexit: Flailing Johnson Set to Try to Renege on Commitment to Respect Good Friday Agreement

Our Brexit brain trust (Clive, Colonel Smithers, David, PlutoniumKun and vlade) have had an extended and very informative discussion of an impending Brexit spat in the Telegraph, over the unresolved sore point of the Northern Ireland protocol, as in the irritant of the promise to respect the Good Friday Agreement. Even though they have important nuances in their views, they are largely on the same page and I hope to give a recap that doesn’t offend any of them.

Note that this sighting may prove to be unduly premature. The Torygraph indicated that the dustup was planned to start “in the coming days” which would normally seem to mean this week. It may be that the Government is refining its position. Or it may be that Johnson convinced himself that his Tory conference speech this week would be such a success that he could hold off on his planned EU eyepoking a bit till he needed a new round of good headlines to divert attention from wee problems like petrol and food shortages and warnings about meager Christmas fare.

Johnson decided to blame business for Brexit not going swimmingly, while managing to skip over the nasty particulars like trucker shortages and therefore not have to get his hands dirty by proposing solutions.

True to form, The Daily Mail hit most bases in its headline: Is anyone else laughing? Fury at Boris’s ‘blustering and vacuous’ joke-laden Tory speech vowing to ‘Level Up’ wages and claiming Thatcher would have backed tax rises to bail out the NHS… while UK faces MORE energy cost spikes and ‘stagflation’ threat. And a follow-up opinion piece didn’t let up:

Does Boris Johnson have any real plan to stop empty supermarket shelves this Christmas, fix the threat of rampant inflation, tackle a chronic lack of HGV drivers or deal with the biggest cost of living crisis in a generation caused by a year of lockdowns?

After his speech today at the Conservative party conference, there was only one, very depressing answer: Hell no!

Of course, there were rhetorical flourishes, poetic historical references, nonsensical catchphrases (‘Build Back Beaver, Build Back Burger’), and a collection of optimistic platitudes and obscure jokes.

The Financial Times focused on the scapegoating of businesses for their failure to deliver Singapore on Thames tout suite…as if that would employ enough people, let alone provide for

Perhaps Johnson assumed, given the very low standard set by Kier Starmer’s recent Labour confab sppech, it didn’t much matter what he said as long as it seemed rousing. Ooops. Even ConservativeHome was Not Keen. The subhead to ToryDiary: Churchill, walking with destiny. Johnson, winking at destiny was:

His biggest strength now is that to a mass of people who don’t follow politics he is a Given, A Fact – like Thatcher, Blair or the weather.

From the Financial Times:

Boris Johnson on Wednesday admitted it would be difficult and “take time” to restructure the UK economy, as the prime minister doubled down on his pledge to create a “high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity” society….

Ministers have angered the business community this week by accusing it of over-reliance on cheap foreign labour before the UK left the EU and Johnson introduced curbs on low-skilled immigration….

“The government’s response to labour shortages in some sectors — that this is all part of the plan, we’ll leave it to the market, and wages will go higher — is only feeding these inflationary pressures,” said Mark Dowding, chief investment officer at BlueBay Asset Management.

The Times was more pointed:

Boris Johnson is facing a backlash from Brexit-supporting business leaders as they accused him of treating them like the “bogeyman” over labour shortages.

The prime minister used his conference speech yesterday to promise to reshape the country after Covid and Brexit by unleashing Britain’s “unique spirit” and outlined his vision for “radical conservatism”. He said that the present stresses and strains in the economy, which have led to petrol shortages and warnings about empty shelves this Christmas, were part of the transition towards the high-wage, high-skill economy people voted for during the EU referendum. He warned businesses against using Brexit as an excuse for failing to invest in people and said that restricting low-skilled migration would ultimately make the country more prosperous.

Business leaders warned, though, that restricting migration could lead to higher inflation as increased costs would be passed on to the consumer.

Mind you, the Brexiteers did stoke xenophobia, even though the UK then had more non-EU than EU migrants. But even the Ultras never talked much about the idea of turning the UK into buccaneer Britain, to step into the role formerly played by Cyprus, a financial center operating under English law, where parties like multinationals wanting to operate in presumed-not-to-be evenhanded Russia could contract and send funds through Cyprus, assuring that disputes would be heard in English law courts. Oh, and high tech too.

Most who heard of the Singapore on Thames scheme assumed was either ideologues high on their supply, or cover for a plutocratic land grab if Brexit went badly. Johnson apparently regards this idea as a way to depict the UK’s tsuris as simply an inevitable transition period, made worse by lazy businessmen not getting with the program.

So what about the presumably still-in-the-works row over the Good Friday Agreement? An October 4 report Eurointelligence kicked the debate among our Brexit experts off:

The story broke late last night in the Telegraph. According to the paper, the UK now has a legal text to replace the Northern Ireland protocol, and is ready to trigger Art. 16 if there is no agreement with the EU. The proposal will be sent to Brussels in the coming days. Lord Frost will be arguing that it is compatible with the protocol, which under Art. 13(8) can be superseded by superior arrangements. Superior of course from a British point of view.

The UK text leans strongly on what is know as a command paper, sent by the UK to the EU earlier. Proposals are to reduce red tape from Brussels and guarantee frictionless trade of UK goods entering Northern Ireland that are not at risk of crossing into the single market, while exempting medicine completely from the protocol. Another proposal would end the role of the European Court of Justice in disputes related to Northern Ireland. All of these are unlikely to be swallowed by Brussels.

The European Commission is to send a much less radical proposal to London soon. Lord Frost moved first with this nuclear trigger proposal and thus determines the path of future negotiations. He will tell his party today that the EU’s proposal to fix the protocol will not be the significant change the UK needs and that tinkering around the edges will not be good enough. Will he be backed by the party? This confrontation strategy may pay dividends for the Tories politically. The Tories can portray themselves as the saviour of Northern Ireland and promoters of change and divergence from the EU in other areas such as AI. See our separate story on this below. But would an open conflict with the EU be in the interest of the people in Northern Ireland? They are, at the moment, in the unique position of benefiting from the single market and still being part of the UK. They would like to see better arrangements in this post-Brexit world, but not necessarily a conflict that just moves the other way towards their border with the EU.

How will the EU react? Their position was that they will not renegotiate the protocol, and they are unlikely to agree to replace it with a legal text based on the command paper. The way it was played also will irk Brussels. This kind of arm twisting will most likely provoke a retaliatory message from Brussels. The EU had given London some leeway: legal actions had been postponed in this open ended grace period, which the UK unilaterally called for and the EU reluctantly accepted. This move is likely to be seen as the end of that goodwill. Confronting the EU like this is bringing the conflict into the open. It has the potential to rally Brexiteers with misgivings towards Brussels. The potential for escalating rhetoric and action has just increased exponentially. Something has to give.

Chris Grey warned repeatedly that getting a Brexit deal done was not a finishing point but the start of yet more negotiations and adjustments. In his post last Friday, which was about Brexit crisis denialism, Grey turned at the very end to the simmering Irish border issue:

There is a very bizarre contrast between the government’s approach to Brexit in general and to the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) in particular. The general approach is to insist that Brexit is having no adverse effects, despite the supply crisis, and that nothing about it is up for discussion, still less change. Yet the NIP, which is in many respects protecting Northern Ireland from Brexit problems, including that of fuel shortages, is treated as an unworkable disaster which must be completely renegotiated. Relatedly, whilst playing down or rejecting any suggestions that the new Brexit barriers are impinging on EU-GB trade, those same barriers are represented as devastating for NI-GB trade.

If there is a sense to be made of it, it may lie in the lingering unionism of the Tory Party and within that guilt about Johnson’s abandonment of Northern Ireland’s unionists in order to ‘get Brexit done’ and perhaps even fear that it will augment the boost to Scottish independence that Brexit has in any case provided. Be that as it may, what has been created by Johnson’s Brexit is something akin to a controlled trial in which the effects of hard Brexit in Great Britain can be compared with the effects of the (relatively) softer Brexit in Northern Ireland. The emergent differences in these effects are very clearly chronicled by Professor Gerhard Schnyder on the Encompass website.

All this might be taken to bolster my recent suggestion that David Frost’s ‘Betamax’ approach to the NIP makes the time ripe for it (and him) to be jettisoned, not least since layering a political crisis with the EU on top of the economic crisis seems foolish for a government that claims to have got Brexit done. But the contrary possibility, outlined by, amongst others, Baroness Jenny Chapman who leads on Brexit for Labour in the House of Lords, is that Johnson and Frost will escalate the NIP row into such a crisis by following through on their threat to invoke Article 16 in order to distractfrom the economic crisis.

If so, it would be deeply irresponsible, and designed solely to whip up the support of the Tories’ leave-voting base and the Brexiter press. That is hardly likely to deter Johnson if he calculates it would be an advantage, but I continue to think it would be a miscalculation. The latest polls show a very sharp change in public opinion over the summer about whether Brexit has been going well (18%, down from 25% in June) or going badly (53%, up from 38% in June) since the end of the transition period. The core leave vote might well see escalating conflict with the EU as a sign of Brexit going well, but that’s unlikely to be so for most voters, including many Tory voters.

Grey has an unfortunate tendency, against evidence, to hope that the Tory leadership will be reasonable. Given that the petrol/food/other supply chain issues in the UK are garnering headlines all over the world, Johnson desperately needs to generate competing news stories where the Government looks like it is driving events.

Johnson might heed the warning of the fictionalized Elizabeth I as played by Cate Blanchette: “I do not like wars. They have uncertain outcomes.”

We’ll give a very short recap of the observations made by our experts; no doubt there will be much more to say if this situation ripens.

Even though the UK may believe it has close to airtight legal grounds for using Article 16 to force a renegotiation of the Northern Ireland protocol, nothing in the real world is ever so neat and tidy. The Withdrawal Agreement included provisions to allow the EU to retaliate if it thought the UK was invoking Article 16 on questionable grounds. Both disputes would likely be adjudicated on more or less the same timetable. And the EU has other ways to retaliate, like messing with Gibraltar, which no one besides Spain cares much about.

The UK’s position is made worse by the fact that is has piss-poor practical ground for trying to force a renegotiation of the Northern Ireland protocol. There was no mystery about what the UK agreed to. And it’s not as if circumstances have changed. Nor is there any serious threat of violence creating a need to act. The Catholics were far more militant and disciplined than the Protestants. And what pray tell would they do? Car bombs in London? That will win a lot of hearts and minds.

PlutoniumKun reports that Dublin isn’t worried, which means the most that might take place is occasional acts of nutter violence, which seems to happen irrespective of the nominal trigger.

In fact, vlade argues the EU would have to retaliate:

The EU assumed – IMO quite sensibly – that if Johnson was willing to sign the WA with the NI part as-was, then he was ok with it. Signing it just so that he moved on with the whole thing only to get back before the ink was dry and say “this won’t do” is not really something you want to do and be treated as a good-will counterparty. Especially when it looks like you signed it to get a leverage by threatening to kick large chunks of it into the long grass pronto….

If the Irish reaction is muted, then it’s easier for the EU to implement retaliatory measures, and it would certainly do some, because as David says, not to do it would be seen as a weakness to be exploited by other parties, which the EU can’t afford (and knows it).

The big reason it is possible that Johnson’s stunt won’t get off the ground it the US will not be on board. During the Brexit negotiations, Pelosi said, close to this bluntly, “Kiss a US trade deal goodbye if you mess with the Good Friday Agreement.” Biden has taken the same position.

The UK is in an even worse position thanks to the AUKUS deal. A close reading of the Biden call to Macron shows that Biden ate a lot of crow, and looks set to eat more when he goes to Europe in October to see Macron in person. India has also made clear that it is mighty unhappy. Since the UK was the apparent winner and probable instigator, and the US is now in a big mess as a result of not having thought things through, it can’t be enamored of the UK right now. Johnson is hardly in a position to presume the US will lift a finger to help him; in fact, the US could conceivably go as far as to tell the UK through channels to back down from any EU spat.

So we’ll learn what if anything materializes in due course. But make no mistake, Johnson is in a heap of trouble with no idea about how to improve conditions for ordinary people in the UK, or more accurately, doggedly determined not to take steps like loosening migration even in a targeted way out of ideological cussedness. Johnson has been fabulously lucky, but he might finally be in a pickle where events fail to bail him out. We may have the misfortune to see what a truly desperate Johnson will do.

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  1. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Every day, I read another comment by some ludicrously salaried / bonused CEO, most recently Lord Wolfson, CEO of Next PLC (the conflation of titles says a lot about contemporary English society), pontificating that the solution to the food shortages (caused by lack of HGV [Heavy Goods Vehicles] drivers, not an actual shortage of food), no restaurant staff, etc. is to import more slave labour from Eastern Europe.

    Nary a single one of these CEOs has the courage to say, “You know, I have enough money. I’m going to sacrifice a tiny fraction of my absurd wealth to pay my employees a living wage.”

    1. Jesper

      True. Seldom before has it been clearer what the choices are:
      -pay a living wage and accept that costs will increase
      -keep costs down and accept that people will be working for less than a living wage and in poor working conditions

      If the job/work is worth doing then it is worth a living wage. Those who opt for low costs/wages for others have chosen their side, they are with the PMC and the 1%.
      Solidarity with fellow workers or side with the PMC and the 1%?

    2. vlade


      But that’s not going to magic few tens of thousands of HGV drivers overnight, or even a few thousands of fuel-truck drivers.

      The point here is that these issues were predictable, and predicted. The govt had plenty of time to figure out measures that would try to curtail it, for example, passing laws that wold improve HGV driver’s conditions that would improve their attractivness as a job, as well as the infrastructure (my sister-in-law ex boyfriend used to be HGV driver, working for an European company. He hated jobs that took him to the UK, saying that facilities available in Germany/France were just incomparable to what he had to deal with in the UK).

      Yves has been saying for years on this site, that Brexit _could_ be used to “build better”. But it would take war-like focus and capabilities from the governments, which are far from evident anywhere.

      For example, while most of the Europe (indeed, the world) has some energy problem, there are no gas stations queues anywhere except the UK that I know of (that weren’t there before). That’s hitting the poorest, who may not be able to get to work – at the same time, as the govt takes their UC top-up and kills furlough support.

      Johnson is a prime example of magical, fairy-dust thinking (mind you, I am very much in doubt that Labour govt would be much better, although it’d probably not kill the UC. Well, maybe it would, post the refusal to consider minimum wage raise).

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I think that even if the UK doubled wages for drivers, it would make little difference. There is a shortage all over Europe and employers are being forced to improve conditions and pay. There is little motivation for any driver to move to the UK when they are in a good negotiating position at home.

        1. vlade

          What I meant is that if the UK wants local drivers, it has to a) attract them b) train them.

          Currently it’s failing at both levels, and the issue was, as I say, predictable and predicted (except that at that time, the businesses were scared of Tory/Brexiters, so just muttered it).

          I know that one of the Tory “policies” is to enhance rail transport, but again, even if it was to be delivered successfully by the current govt (a minor miracle), it will not happen overnight, and I don’t see any evidence that they spent any serious political capital on it before the crisis hit, which they would, if they meant it seriously (as opposed to “quick, give us a policy paper to say we have a long-term strategy!”)

          1. R

            The UK just cut drivers’ wages so it can afford to increase them significantly, by reversing the IR35 rules.

            The imposition of IR35 rules. IR35 is the presumption that contractors are disguised employees and are therefore put on payroll at 20%-45% tax plus c. 10% national insurance. In comparison, as contractors they could deduct their expenses from the income and, depending on how they structured their business, share their income with their spouse.

            £50k pa on payroll is £38k nett. £50k paid to a company suffers corporation tax of 19%, leaving £40.5k. Paid as £20k dividends to each spouse, it benefits from an extra £2k tax free dividend allowance each and no NI and income tax of only 7.5% for a further £825 tax. So £50k is neutral either way. Do overtime (definitely on offer in structural shortage of drivers) and clear £75k and suddenly your take home is £52k on payroll or £58k as a contractor. At £100k, it is £66k on payroll or £75k as a contractor. And that is assuming you cannot also run a lot of your expenses through the company to reduce taxable profits.

            IR35 has crippled industries which historically run on contractors (IT for example) and created a class of people who pay employment taxes but receive no employment rights or the many welfare transfers that have employment as an eligibility criterion.

            1. vlade

              Yep, I’m well aware of IR35.

              On one hand, you can argue that it gave contractors a tax advantage.

              On the other hand, as a contractor you could (and people were) fired on pretty much no notice (in theory, you could have a notice in the contract, but in practice you’d be told “here’s a notice, and btw, we don’t need you for that next month”), you had no sick leave etc. etc – you were expected to cover all of that from the contract pay.

              The contracting stuff was, indeed, misused. But IMO, the way to fix it should have been a fundamental tax rewrite (along the lines – drop NIC, all income, no matter what the source, goes to one pile which gets taxed progressively), not this stuff

              But as usual, actual simplification of the tax code (complication of which has been very much work of one Mr. Brown) is bad for anyone who can afford a tax advisor (never mind the tax advisors themselves).

          2. Jesper

            About this:

            What I meant is that if the UK wants local drivers, it has to a) attract them b) train them.

            Whose responsibility would you say it is to ensure that companies can attract people and ensure they are trained?

            What responsibility did the CEOs have for planning and preparing for Brexit?

            People who are made redundant and look for help are told that once they were notified about the redundancy then they should have started preparing for the next job, training and looking for the job.
            But companies, or rather the CEOs, can’t do the same for something they knew would happen? Are they lacking in ability or are they just lazy?

    3. Bill

      He also said he supported brexit and he is a conservative. He strongly approved Osbourne austerity policies. He also has Polish ancestry which makes him skeptical of immigrants being work shy and low paid.

      He also warned that british economy could collapse after brexit if the government did not have trade agreements in place.

      He is also chair of the very influential think tank, open europe. Which contrary to what most brexiteers think, has always supported freedom of movement.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Thanks for this, its as good an overview as you’ll find anywhere.

    Politically, the UK seems to be entering dangerous territory, with a PM who seems to be both determined to hold on to power at any cost, with an overall consensus inside and outside his party that he is doomed. As Yves notes at the end, this makes him a wild card, Johnson has a history of deliberately creating distractions in order to get himself out of holes he’s dug himself. I wonder if the more sensible Tories are plotting to ease him out to avoid this – by maybe offering him some sort of very lucrative post politics career. But his Churchill fixation might make him very stubborn. He’s long been seen as amusing, even by his enemies. But like all bluffers and bullies, he is perfectly capable of doing real harm. There may be nobody laughing by the time winter sets in.

    To clarify what I mean by saying that Dublin isn’t worried about the UK reneging on the GFA, is that there were real worries over the summer about a rise in violence in Northern Ireland. Dublin is well aware that the more extreme Brexiteers have always seen Ireland as the ‘weak link’, the country that can be used as a hostage against the EU.

    Instead, the main Unionist political parties have been busy tearing themselves apart and the more extreme elements have proven a damp squib in their attempts to provoke real trouble on the streets. By NI standards, it was a very quiet summer. So there seems to be a general feeling that the bluff has been called. The Irish government would obviously not be happy if London does something radical over the GFA and Article 16, but my reading is that they feel in a strong enough situation that they can simply sit back, let the big boys (Brussels and Washington) step in, and be confident that London would be forced down. It seems less and less likely by the day that the Unionists in NI are genuinely capable of doing too much damage.

    The other dynamic that seems to have escaped the notice of the Tories in London is that NI is doing quite well out of the current situation. Thanks to the agreement, it is not suffering the same shortages as the rest of the UK. Even hard line Unionists may think twice if they see the possibility of petrol rationing or empty shelves. Its been slow, but gradually the consensus of the very small, but influential business establishment is that the status quo is the worst of a lot of bad options for them. So they will not welcome London stirring the pot. The dynamic is changing, although as always with NI, its very hard to really know for sure.

    As always, things will be driven by the Tories intense and never ending desire to be in power. They’ve already left austerity behind so rapidly that the idiots in charge of Labour haven’t noticed. They may hope that pre-Christmas chaos can all be blamed on Johnson and Brussels and a new face will be in place for early in the New Year. The seem ready to call the SNP’s bluff over Scottish Independence. They are ready to relentlessly gaslight everyone over the real reasons for shortages of basic goods. I’d never underestimate them.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Just to add to this – a tweet today from RTE indicating that the EU will set out ‘generous’ proposals to make the Northern Ireland Protocol work better. My reading of this is that the Irish government (and others) have been working behind the scenes to make sure the NIP works as well as possible, and that failures will be seen as UK failures. This might be spun as a victory by Brexiteers (‘Look! the EU has given away all these concessions!’), but I think its more a case that the EU is trying to avoid giving London any grounds to move Article 16, at least in the eyes of anyone but the UK media.

      1. vlade

        I assume you meant best in the “that the status quo is the worst of a lot of bad options for them”?

        1. PlutoniumKun

          I meant ‘best’ as in, the Northern Ireland protocol being the status quo, and better than the alternatives London can present them. They haven’t gotten around full yet to thinking that joining the Republic is better for them. Well, apart from getting Irish passports, which is one way they can fly the Union Jack while getting all the benefits of being in the EU.

          What I was trying to say is that while Unionist politicians are trying to stir the pot with Brexiteers, the Belfast establishment (loosely speaking, the business/political establishment) is far less keen on disruption. The DUP is generally not in thrall to the traditional Unionist establishment, being much more rural and working class, but that doesn’t mean they can ignore them, especially when they are having major internal difficulties.

          1. Eustachedesaintpierre

            I would agree with all of that PK & in relation to the somewhat damp squib rioting by historical standards. a fella that I know reckons that one of the reasons is that the UVF & UDA are more interested in drug dealing – over here if you see a black range rover with tinted windows there are no prizes for guessing the trade of the owner.

            There are some small dissident Republican groups that operate in a similar way, but for the most part especially in Belfast Bobby Storey in his own particular way eliminated that trade, in a small war against the Hoodies & occasionally it is something that you can still be shot or kneecapped for in Catholic areas. Other Republican dissidents such as those in the Sperrins & other remote areas, tend to be very old RA vets who broke from SF due to their policing policy.

            No shortages here of fuel, although for food, stocks in Sainsbury’s appear lower with less variety & I have had to shop around to get tinned prunes & rabbit nuggets which of course is no big deal, although Benji & Coco disapproved of the couple of days of rationing.

          2. Susan the other

            How long will it take for everybody in western Yorkshire to apply for dual citizenship and get an Irish passport? But… I’m really Irish.

      2. larry

        “They’ve already left austerity behind”. I wouldn’t be quite so sure about that, PK. From a number of the things Sunak has recently said, he hasn’t left his neoliberalism, and thus his austerity, behind. He has indicated that he intends to bring it back in some form in the autumn budget. I guess we will see when he actually gives the budget. He isn’t calling it a budget, but that is what it is.

        1. Anonymous 2

          Extra taxes on the workers have already been announced. With that and soaring fuel prices, I doubt they are going to feel that austerity has been abandoned. It is always important with politicians, but especially Johnson, to look at the actions rather than the rhetoric to see what is really going on.

          My daughter was once in a meeting with Johnson when he said he was a Liberal. BS.

  3. vlade

    In other news:

    “Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger told the BBC this morning that the $77bn-revenue hardware giant would have considered the UK as a site for a new chip factory before it took the decision to leave the European Union.

    But he added: “Post-Brexit… we’re looking at EU countries and getting support from the EU.””

    Of course, it’s entirely possible it’s just an opening salvo in the fight for the highest possible tax credits etc..

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Its interesting that he was so blunt about it. You would have thought he would at least hold out the possibility of one to see if a desperate UK government was willing to go to its knees for it.

      The one thing stopping them picking Ireland is one particularly stubborn farmer.

      1. Peerke

        The new “Gigafab” was never going to be in Leixlip. As I understand it this dispute was about a smallish expansion of the existing site.

    2. DJG, Reality Czar


      It’s an opening salvo in the fight for the highest possible tax credits and, who knows?, loosening of EU labor law protecting workers.

      A couple days back, I posted a link to an article in LaStampa. Various Italian negotiators were under the impression that Intel was serious about a site in Italy and, all of a sudden, and che sorpresa, Intel is talking to the French and the Germans.

      Yet that doesn’t mean that the Americans (Intel) will come out of this without egg on their faces. It seems to be an American talent, especially lately.

  4. Marshall Auerback

    The labour shortage is definitely a short term problem.

    Clearly, some firms will be finding it difficult to immediately fill their vacancies and training takes time.

    But in the true full employment period which we had decades ago, before businesses started adopting a serf-like mentality in regard to how they treated their works, when vacancies tended to outrun unemployment, firms developed a forward-looking mentality to ensure their training programs were concident with their expected labour needs.

    Years of unemployment and access to low-paid foreign labour has altered that sense of preparedness.

    Brexit is definitely painful right now, and will force an adjustment on firms that will serve to benefit the low-paid workers I suspect.

    It might make home help a bit more expensive, however, for bankers and other high-paid professional workers in London.

    And it is that cohort that tend to scream about the negative consequences of Brexit. Whether the Tories deliver on this is still problematic, but I do think Brexit will ultimately force employers to break out of their keep wages growth low mentality to attract labour; that they will have to offer adequate skills training to ensure the workers can do the work required; and, that unemployment will be driven as low as can be. What is not good about that? Brexit has done a lot of things, one of them being to provide the British working class to arrest the degradation in their labour market conditions that neoliberalism has wrought in a context of plenty of low wage labour always being in surplus. I’m surprised that people contain to ignore this factor and listen all of the time to people like Chris Grey, whose Brexit newsletter is simply a big “I told you so” these days.

    1. Anonymous 2

      I would wait to see if Brexit benefits low paid workers in the UK. Time will tell. I have my doubts. The economy is going to be smaller so someone is going to lose out. Take a case in point, HGV drivers, where it is said pay is going up. Who will pay for this? The employers? Unlikely I reckon when there is clearly a reduction in supply of services from haulage firms. Much more likely that they will pass costs on to consumers i.e. the ordinary public, or those who are not in a position to bargain their pay upwards. One example at present seems to be health workers whose heroic efforts over the last 18 months and more currently stand to be rewarded by a real pay cut.

      Whether you can force employers to change their ways when they have freedom of movement of capital is an interesting question. Quite a lot of jobs have already been moved out of the UK. And when many of the current members of the British Cabinet seem to think that British workers have been molly-coddled and need to be taught a few lessons about how harsh life can really be? After all, the tax increases which have just been announced have been aimed fair and square at the workers.

  5. BillS

    Thanks for this informative article. NC has really been my go-to place for sane Brexit discussion.

    It’s possible (given Pelosi and Biden’s remarks on the topic) that the special USA-UK relationship could be seriously threatened by any attempt to blow up the Good Friday Accords. Is there any discussion of this in the UK? Also, what are the chances that any attempt to end the GFA would push even Unionists to consider the unification of NI with the Republic? (I can understand Dublin’s silence on the topic, but I assume this has been the strategy of NI’s Republicans during this whole Brexit debacle.)

    1. PlutoniumKun

      From what I can see, the US perspective on this is largely overlooked in the UK. Pelosi’s statements were almost ignored in the UK media, and were often completely misunderstood or misrepresented. I’m sure senior political advisers are perfectly well aware of what it means, but I get the impression this is not widely understood, and maybe not by many Tory politicians either.

      I don’t think its a case of this potentially souring relations between the US and the UK. The US is the senior partner, so it will simply set out the political implications to the UK government behind closed doors. It will be pointed out that it will be impossible to get any trade deal past Congress if the UK is seen to go against ‘advice’ on this. The UK can still of course do what it wants (as, for example, it did during the Vietnam War when it sensibly stayed out), but as always in these things, there will be consequences.

      Unionist politicians are most certainly not talking about unification, but its very clear that there are shifts taking place in Unionism. I often talk about the Belfast establishment, by which I mean the general block of people in NI with money and influence. These people have always been overwhelmingly unionist, by culture, conviction, and in their financial interest. But as the latter issue is now pointing to closer ties to Ireland, its clear that while they have not suddenly become Republicans, many don’t see unification as necessarily a disaster. Some are seeing it as a regretful inevitability. As demographics are going in favour of nationalists anyway, if you add in the economic arguments, its clear there is some momentum pushing towards it now.

      It should be said, this fills the hearts of Dublin politicians with absolute dread. They all want a united Ireland… sometime…. many years away when they don’t have to deal with it.

  6. Alan

    Much of the press is not picking up the speed of change here (NI). The knee jerk reaction is now to look to Eire first, and what is now the “mainland” (Continental Europe now not GB) second. The mind set has changed, with survival depending on keeping good hold of nurse (the EU) for fear of meeting something worse (Johnson).

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, as Chris Grey has pointed out, the real problem Brexiters have with the Northern Ireland Protocol is precisely that it is working – far too well. Its insulated NI from the UK’s problems and is showing too clearly that it is Brexit, and not Covid or anything else which is doing the damage. That, ultimately, is why they want rid of it. Its success is slowly changing the dynamic in Northern Ireland.

      Even the Belfast Telegraph is publishing article suggesting that things are only going in one direction, and its not the one Unionists want. Its simple pragmatism.

      Sinn Fein are very sensibly keeping their mouths shut.

  7. The Rev Kev

    Australia could tell Boris about the consequences of trashing agreements. When Scotty from Marketing told the French to get lost with their submarine on only an hour’s notice, he may have thought that he was being quite smart. But when he turned to the EU a coupla days later where a free trade treaty was being negotiated between Oz and the EU, Brussels told him to go pound sand as negotiations are now on the back-burner for the foreseeable future. Never saw that coming. /sarc

    Boris is probably thinking that he can renege on the Northern Ireland agreement and that there will be no consequences from either the EU or the US. But when he is thinking that there will be no consequences, what is going on in his mind is that there will be no consequences for him. Boris has a long history of failing up and having establishment figures giving him help instead of leaving him swinging in the wind. I think that he is not worried about wrecking any agreements or the like as he will be always protected and as he has made so many of his mates rich during the pandemic, a high-paying job will always be found for him and that he will always be taken care of. Just my take of course.

  8. Dave in Austin

    There is a direct contradiction between the Northern Ireland Protocols and Brexit. The attempts to avoid, paper-over or ignore the contradiction have failed.

    If Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain, then Brexit creates a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. If the customs border is prohibited by the Protocol, then either Brexit must no longer treat Northern Ireland as a full part of Great Britain, or a customs barrier must be created which is a direct violation of the Protocol.

    As I understand it (correct me if I’m wrong), both the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocols are agreements between the parties (the Irish Republic Government at the time and the British Government at the time) and have never been ratified as “treaties”. They are thus not part of international law but are instead simple agreements between leaders in power which, in theory, are not binding on subsequent governments. Newspaper headlines and congratulatory statements by political leaders are not treaties, no matter how much both the leaders, the press and parts of public opinion want to act as if they were. Signing agreements is easy; ratifying treaties is harder and the ratification debates risks raising public awareness of the potential contradictions, which leaders, for good reason, do not want to do- witness the League of Nations Treaty debate in the US Senate in 1919-20.

    I could point out a number of examples in American public life where agreements of one sort or another are proclaimed as “treaties” by advocates. But under the US Constitution a treaty is negotiated by the Executive Branch and then submitted to the Senate for ratification. Without ratification the US doesn’t have a treaty. All sorts of non-treaties are called treaties by the press for political purposes even though they have never been ratified by the Senate and usually have not even been submitted to the Senate because everyone at the time understood that the Senate would never pass them.

    So part of the problem in the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocols is that the press and the political leaders keep congratulating themselves and chanting “Agreement = legally binding treaty” when in actuality this is not true.

    Not pretty and not an answer to the Northern Ireland problem, but maybe it is time to grow up and at least face the real nature of the problem.

    1. vlade

      No, both are treaties.

      As a matter of fact, GFA is_way_ more than a treaty, as both NI and Ireland had referendums (in Ireland, it’s actually a constitutional amendment, and in the UK it’s also considered part of the “unwritten constitution” now, and has significant impact on laws etc.) on it. So it’s not like pirate code.

      1. Basil Pesto

        furthermore, even if they *weren’t* treaties or otherwise binding instruments of international law per se, I think an argument could be made that the contents of the agreement, having been observed by both parties for nearly 25 years now, could now constitute international law by dint of customary international law

      2. JohnA

        To paraphrase Sam Goldwyn, an unwritten constitution is not worth the paper it is written on.

        When Johnson was editor of the Spectator, a cartoonist was commissioned to do a front cover cartoon. He wanted to know if they wanted bleed or no bleed. Nobody could give him an answer. Eventually in utter frustration he got through to Johnson who, instead of a straight answer, launched into his usual schtick of waffle, waffle, bumble, bumble, waffle blah blah. The cartoonist by now livid cut him short and told him he was sick to death of his bumbling waffle. Unperturbed, Johnson replied that his so-called bumbling waffle, had served him very well throughout his career.
        Johnson is a man-child and an incredibly self-centred one at that.

        1. vlade

          An “unwritten constitution” in the UK doesn’t mean what you think it does.

          It means that there is a a body of laws which the courts consider at the level the other countries would consider explicit constitutional laws, and treat them as such.

          Usually, those are laws that restrict what can/can’t be in other laws, and GFA is indeed one such thing.

          1. Tom Bradford

            “a body of laws”

            Say, rather, a body of principles which will be applied to the dispute in the absence of specific legislation over-riding them

    2. PlutoniumKun

      I’m not a law expert, but my understanding is that there is no clear distinction between an ‘agreement’ and a ‘treaty’ in international law (the US perspective is based on a specific reading of the US constitution).

      The Vienna Convention applies to all international treaties including the GFA. While it is a bilateral Agreement, it was co-signed by the EU and the US, so it is considered to have the same legal status as a full treaty. Thats my understanding anyway, I can stand corrected on that.

      1. vlade

        It has been implemented in both the UK and Irish law, at a fundamental level. For example, it’s been already causing Tories headache, because it requires the UK to enshrine ECHR in its law, which Cameron wanted to dump.

        So it’s very definitely not just a wink-wink, let’s get something to the media stuff.

    3. vlade

      Further to your fist para. Indeed. But the EU has assumed – and IMO, anyone else would do the same – that if the UK was willing to sign the NI protocol as-was, that it was ok with it. Not happy, but willing to implement it in the order to get WA signed-off.

      Let’s remember that May didn’t sign the WA precisely because she considered the NI protocol incompatible with the UK’s (well, unionist’s, on who she relied at the time) interests.

  9. LowellHighlander

    “We may have the misfortune to see what a truly desperate Johnson will do.”

    Not to say that Ms. Smith implied anything of this sort in her final comment, but I just can’t help but remember Margaret Thatcher’s solution to her falling popularity (in the face of, IIRC, a looming election): starting a war over the Malvinas Islas.

    I just hope that no one reading this can come up with a scenario under which the Clown of Downing Street can manufacture a casus belli somewhere.

    1. RabidGandhi

      As much as I despise Thatcher, it was the Argentine Military Junta that invaded the UK-held Malvinas, not vice versa.

      1. JBird4049

        Interestingly, junta created the war specifically as a distraction from their political unpopularity. When they lost, they were deposed and Thatcher got her needed boost.

  10. fajensen

    Thanks to their general incompetence, which is in some ways pure luck for everyone else, Boris Johnson’s government does not have the “kinetic” ressources available to pursue a war with Spain (Gibraltar), France (because it exists) or China (because those wogs are getting uppity and should know their proper place in The Empire), however much they would love to have one.

    Instead, they can have some Ersatz, in the from of the “Civil Contingencies Act 2004” which gives them almost the same joys – rationing, commandeering of workers, “a strong nation united for one purpose”, et cetera – at a much lesser cost and personal risk (for Boris Johnson) than actual war.

    The planned collapse of the NHS would be a convenient point to pull the trigger. Another one would be sanctions that will be imposed by the EU over UK abandoning The Northern Ireland Protocol.

  11. Susan the other

    I always thought the sole reason for Brexit was to maintain a sovereign currency. A very useful thing, even though all the banks up and moved to the EU. Even though the old empire is a thing of the past. Why else would Theresa be so rude as to confront the EU with a blatant threat to make the issue a race to the bottom and turn London into Singapore on the Thames? All of it was pretty in your face back then. And now, Boris seems unable to take advantage of it. I don’t really buy it. I’m thinking Boris is just trying to look stupid so nobody catches on that he really can pull a rabbit out of his hat. Because MMT: there’s no reason to create crippling austerity and Boris will be able to get his act together. And he’ll probably get an Irish passport too.

    1. fjallstrom

      UK had and Denmark has treaty exceptions to joining the Euro. Sweden has a de facto exception (no in a referendum followed by intentionally avoiding to meet the requirements to be allowed to join). So no, it’s not about the Euro.

      In my opinion, it was all extremely short sighted moves to win the next election. As I recently wrote on European Tribune (

      I am leaning towards Tories only caring about short term electoral advantage. And it is really short term.

      Cameron: promise a Brexit referendum in order to win a national election. Win election. Lose referendum. Have no idea what to do, resign.

      May: Hand in notice of withdrawal in order to win a national election. Barely win election. Fail basic negotiation skills in not checking what your principal wants or can accept before negotiations, resign.

      de Pfeffel Johnson: Call an election and promise to deliver Brexit. Win election, deliver a worse Brexit than May, have no idea what to do, blame EU.

      If you look at this track record, it is not even good at winning elections. Or for the individual PM to stay in office, though Tories has managed to cling to power with a bit of help from the Lib dems who hated Corbyn more and the Queen who appointed de Pfeffel despite him not having the parliament’s support. The only way it is consistent is in the failing of actual governence.

      1. Susan the other

        But politics always manages to beg the question because nobody wants to talk about money. Why does government fail almost constantly? The obvious (maybe wrong) answer for me is always a conflict over money and equality. The UK doesn’t seem to be sharing the wealth like it could, if it really wanted to. It looks like it’s just easier to impose hardship and austerity than to organize new trading partners and keep the country running smoothly. Maybe (crazy thought) countries should have several “governments” operating simultaneously but not one monolithic party organizing various departments. Like the government of trade; the government of education; of health; of blablablah.

    2. LivedTher

      The U.K. had a great deal – access to Europe, special clauses and own currency. It propped up business by a significant amount with European headquarters and banking businesses creaming the top of all union money flows. It papered over a lot of structural weaknesses but as London rose faster than all others and the rich everywhere got richer quicker it sowed the seeds for Brexit. Having observed the inexplicable progress of the British Economy over the past two decades vs. comparable nation states in the EU I fear the revision to normal/mean won‘t be a short nor gentle affair.

  12. DJG, Reality Czar

    The expression that truly struck me was “high-wage, high-skill.” Just how bad is the English (and this is about England) economy? It seems to me awfully late to be making promises that years of deindustrialization, of stripping away publicly owned facilities, of pretending that the railroad network hadn’t been destroyed for looting and profits are all now going to be undone.

    Sorry We Missed You by Ken Loach is brilliant, emotionally profound, and disturbing. As is the case with all good art, has it captured exactly what is going on?

    1. Anonymous 2

      A lot of the English economy is a real mess. IIRC 49 of the 50 poorest towns in Northern Europe are in the UK (and not all of them in Scotland!). A major problem is the disparity between the very prosperous South East and the rest of the country. The South East has benefitted from the great success of London which has boomed in recent decades while most of the rest of the country stagnated at best. People notice these sorts of things.

      Johnson has promised to ‘level up’ the poorer parts of the country. Apart from some pork barrel spending in Tory marginal seats, which is bound to happen, the problem is that this is pretty well impossible. How do you raise salary and wage levels in the depressed areas to the same level as those in London, where the bankers and the billionaires live (the UK has special tax arrangements for foreign billionaires which make it a very attractive place of residence for e.g. Russian oligarchs)? The answer is you cannot. So Johnson won power by promising to perform the impossible. A lot of people are going to be very disappointed when they realise they have been conned, though just when the penny will drop is unclear . The Tories will either try to rig the next election to stay in office or ditch Johnson before it takes place in order to run with a fresh face as leader (or both, of course).

    2. Tom Bradford

      “high wage, high skill” is as empty and inane as promising everyone at least 125% of the average wage or that everyone working in a hospital will be doing brain surgery. Train everyone without a job to be a plumber, electrician or coder and you just get plumbers, electricians or coders sitting at home waiting for something to do. Creating a society in which everyone can live without financial worries whatever their situation in life, their abilities or choose to do even if it’s just work a few hours a day at the machine that goes beep at the supermarket so they’ve time to be home with the kids when they need to be, is so obvious and easy that you’d have to be a Tory politician – or unfortunately these days a Labour one – not to see it.

  13. Mikel

    “But even the Ultras never talked much about the idea of turning the UK into buccaneer Britain…”

    “Bucaneer” a more diplomatic way of saying “pirate”?

  14. c_heale

    Think leaving NIP isn’t going to have the effect the Conservatives want. If the shortages continue (and they seem to be worsening) people in the UK aren’t going to care if we are in or out of it ( in general it’s not a big everyday issue unless you live in NI). Afaik the Conservatives have painted themselves into a corner and no amount of throwing more paint around will get them out of it.

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