23/12/2020. London, United Kingdom. Boris Johnson Brexit Deal – Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street
It is 4pm on Thursday, and only a matter of hours since Boris Johnson struck the agreement that finally sealed Britain’s divorce from the European Union after 47 years of membership.
But as he sits down and begins to reflect on the tumult of the past few weeks in an exclusive interview with The Telegraph, it is clear the Prime Minister is fully aware of the historical significance of the moment.
“I think it has been a long intellectual odyssey for many people of this country,” he said, casting back to 1988, shortly before he, an up-and-coming journalist at The Telegraph, was dispatched to Brussels to report on the European Commission.
“The whole country has been divided about this issue, because we are European, but on the other hand we don’t necessarily want to feel that we’re committed to the ideology of the European Union.
“That’s been the problem and I think it is absolutely true that Margaret Thatcher … she did begin this period of questioning. Her Bruges speech was very, very important.”
Mr Johnson is referring to a speech that, to many Eurosceptics, formed the foundations of the bitter and protracted political struggle against ever closer union that ultimately set Britain on the path to Brexit.
At the height of her power and railing against Jacques Delors’ latest move towards deeper integration, in 1988 Baroness Thatcher urged the Commission to abandon aspirations of a “European super-state” which would infringe on the “different traditions, parliamentary powers and sense of national pride in one’s own country”.
Her warning went unheeded, however, and just four years later the UK signed up to the Maastricht Treaty and with it the creation of the European Union as it is constituted today.
And yet, even after she was toppled and replaced by John Major, an ardent Europhile, the seeds of discontent and the desire to reclaim British sovereignty had been sown in Bruges.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his office in Number 10 – Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street
“When you read it now … it’s prophetic,” Mr Johnson said. “There’s no question I think she would have voted …”, at which point he stops abruptly.
He is, however, reluctant to draw a historical comparison when asked how significant the trade deal – which he has spent the past 11 months negotiating – is for Britain’s future, but said he hopes it marks “an important turning point in our country’s relations with Europe”.
“It’s the end of a long and fractious period, in which we kept trying to pretend to ourselves that we could go along with all sorts of things we didn’t really want to do for the sake of keeping up with the great project of European Union,” he added.
“I think this gives us a basis for a new friendship and partnership that should attract people who love Europe and want to have a great relationship with it, who want to feel close to it.
“But it should also be something that is welcome to people who see the advantages of economic and political independence. I think the country as a whole has got itself into a new and more stable footing. It’s a better relationship and a healthier relationship.”
While Mr Johnson has one eye on the past, he makes clear that the other is firmly trained on the future.
The deal he has brokered is a tale of compromise on both sides, but the Prime Minister believes he has secured a number of key concessions that will enable Britain to be truly independent, deliver on Vote Leave’s pledges, and allow the Government to fully deliver on his “levelling up” agenda.
From the outset, Brussels had pushed for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to oversee the continuation of EU subsidy law in Britain, but Mr Johnson said “there is no role for the ECJ, no EU law.”
The deal also covers services – accounting for 80 per cent of British exports – although on financial services Mr Johnson acknowledges that the treaty “perhaps does not go as far as we would like”.
He adds there is “access for solicitors, barristers” and a “good deal for digital”, with agreements covering the flow of data.
Other chapters include energy, continued access to non-EU car parts, and rules covering electric cars, protecting Japanese car manufacturers in Britain and the wider industry.
The tariff and quota-free deal covers £660bn worth of trade a year, which Mr Johnson said will still be “smooth” but with new customs procedures and paperwork which will mean things are “different and there will be things that business have to do”.
In particular, he is keen to stress that the UK will be free to diverge from EU standards.
This is particularly gratifying for Mr Johnson, who said that after being accused of “cakeism for so many years,” he has achieved what his critics said was impossible: “That you could do free trade with the EU without being drawn into their regulatory or legislative orbit.”
Brussels had started off demanding dynamic alignment – the UK and EU moving in lockstep on standards in future – and in recent weeks risked torpedoing the agreement by demanding the right to impose automatic “lightning” tariffs if Britain’s standards did not evolve with its own over time.
But this has been “greatly watered down”, Mr Johnson said, after being “basically neutered” by the “brilliance” of one of his leading trade negotiators, Oliver Lewis.
The UK has signed up to non-regression – maintaining current standards in some areas – which is a bone of contention for some Brexiteers, who are keen to embark on a bonfire of Brussels’ red tape.
However, the Prime Minister suggested this is a misreading of his Government’s agenda. “All that’s really saying is the UK won’t immediately send children up chimneys or pour raw sewage all over its beaches. We’re not going to regress, and you’d expect that.”
The compromise reached is that both sides will now be able to seek redress through an independent arbitrator, such as the imposition of tariffs, should they feel the level playing field for their businesses has been undermined by the other refusing to raise its standards.
“I would stress that this one is reciprocal,” Mr Johnson said, citing animal welfare standards and more stringent farming practices as one area where Brussels could fall foul of the UK’s higher standards.
But he suggested it would be very unlikely the UK would slap tariffs on the EU in this area.
“We could do it … but we’d be unlikely to do it because we don’t really believe in tariffs; we believe in high standards. If the EU did something like that, it would have to be proportionate and approved by the arbitrator.”
He added that the treaty is “explicit that if this sort of thing starts happening regularly … then the whole free trade aspect collapses” and the UK would simply revert to World Trade Organisation terms.
Now free to diverge, Mr Johnson signaled that major changes are coming down the track.
“It’s one thing to gain your freedom, but we can’t be like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times,” he added, referring to the 1936 film in which Chaplin, reprising his iconic character Little Tramp, is released from jail, only to then seek reimprisonment after struggling to cope with life on the outside.
“We can’t sort of suddenly decide that we’re free and then not decide how to exercise it. This Government has a very clear agenda to unite and level up and to spread opportunity across the country.”
In January, the Treasury will start the process by formally abolishing the tampon tax, made possible by Britain’s exit from the EU, with plans to establish low-tax free ports also well underway.
However, Mr Johnson suggests this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that many of the changes he has been planning have been kept under wraps for fear of jeopardising the trade talks.
“A great Government effort has gone into compiling these and we haven’t necessarily wanted to talk about them much during this period because that perhaps would not have been fruitful,” he continues.
“What I say to my colleagues is free ports, yes, free trade deals, fantastic, changing animal welfare regulations, great, new stuff on data or chemicals, let’s have a look at it all.
“We want to see what we can take forward. We don’t want to diverge for the sake of diverging. But we’re going to want to do things differently where that’s useful for the British people.”
Another area is business taxes and regulation, with Mr Johnson stating that Rishi Sunak is “doing a big exercise on all of this”, although he adds he wants to give the Chancellor space to work through proposals.
And what of the economy. Does he believe that Brexit will shave five per cent from GDP growth, as modelling has suggested, or will an independent trade policy and regulatory freedom defy the expectations of those who say Britain has voted to become poorer?
“Freedom is what you make of it,” he replied. “It’s up to us now to seize the opportunities. We are going to do our best and I think it does present considerable advantages, but we have a very big challenge now with Covid-19.”
Before that, Mr Johnson must first make it through to New Year’s Eve.
Over the next two days, 1,246 pages of the treaty will be pored over by the European Research Group of Tory MPs, who will on Monday deliver a public verdict to the nation on whether it meets the so-called “sovereignty test”.
Legislation implementing the treaty in domestic law will then be rammed through Parliament at breakneck speed on Wednesday, leaving just 24 hours to spare before the transition period ends and the UK’s future relationship with the EU begins.
And while there is no prospect this time round of the legislation being defeated (Sir Keir Starmer’s backing has made sure of that) Mr Johnson is determined to convince even the most hardline Brexiteer that his deal delivers on the promises made by the Vote Leave in 2016.
“I think it will survive the toughest, most ruthless scrutiny by the scholiasts of the Star Chamber,” he said, half-jokingly, referring to the ERG’s panel of lawyers, whose conclusions will be taken as gospel by many Brexiteers.
He adds that the deal delivers on the “fundamental things” the public voted for, including taking back control of the UK’s money, borders and laws.
The Prime Minister will have a harder time convincing British fishermen that he has won on fish, although his choice of attire (a fish-patterned tie and a herringbone shirt) certainly suggests he will make a go of it.
The deal requires the EU to repatriate only 25 per cent of the value of fish it currently catches over a five and a half-year transition period.
This is down from the UK’s original demand of 80 per cent over three years, but still considerably better than the offer of 18 per cent over 10 years that Brussels was initially prepared to concede.
And Mr Johnson makes clear that after the transition ends there will be annual negotiations, meaning the UK’s quotas could go up.
“Our fishing waters is something that is only a small fraction of the UK economy but is very symbolically important … we’ve done that as well,” he said.
Some cynics have suggested that a deal, struck at the last-minute, was always the inevitable outcome, and that a no-deal scenario was merely an empty threat intended only to keep Brexiteers in the Conservaitve Party on side.
But Mr Johnson is keen to impress that this is false, and that he and Lord Frost, his chief Brexit negotiator “came to the conclusion several times that things were going in the wrong direction and that our best bet was to go for no deal.”
“We made that clear to the EU. I really would have done it, believe me.”
One of those moments came last month when Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, brought forward fresh proposals on the level playing field which Mr Johnson said “much more closely resembled dynamic alignment”.
The second he describes as the “hammer”, a term used by Brussels to refer to its demand that it be allowed to retaliate in other areas of trade if there was a row over the fisheries agreement.
This, Mr Johnson said, would have allowed the EU “impose tariffs on any type of British goods” if the UK attempted to cut its fish quotas in future.
“It meant that we could walk out of jail but the hammer would come down, bang! like Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” he added, referring to the Beatles song in which a student embarks on a killing spree using the tool.
“That was plainly a restriction on our freedom, that was not taking back control of our waters, that meant that if we actually tried to take back control of our waters we got hit. I think those were the most difficult things.”
The reason why Brussels caved, Mr Johnson said, is because the UK could act with “absolute conviction” and “get up and walk away” knowing that it had prepared adequately for no deal.
This he puts down to the “very important” work of Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of domestic Brexit preparedness, who also co-chaired the EU-UK joint committee responsible for resolving issues with trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“That was helped on by the UK Internal Market Bill,” Mr Johnson added, citing the legislation laid earlier this year, which threatened to tear up parts of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement in order to protect ties with the province in the event of no deal.
With the signing of the trade deal bringing to an end four and half years of political turmoil in Britain, Mr Johnson’s full focus and energy will quickly shift back to confronting the far greater challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
But as the country prepares to usher in the new year (and with it a new relationship with Europe) he suggested that those who have spent decades pushing for Brexit should be given the opportunity to savour the moment.
“I hope people will be deeply reassured that they have now … a resolution of an issue that has bedevilled our politics for decades. And, I believe, it is the basis for a lasting new friendship and partnership.”