Until last year’s snap general election, Brexit had left the nation’s body politic wholly paralysed. Not only was Theresa May’s torrid withdrawal treaty repeatedly and resoundingly rejected on both sides of the House of Commons but during the second set of indicative votes, the proposal for a second referendum was defeated by a dozen MPs.
But Boris Johnson’s victory last December ended such paralysis. By promising “to get Brexit done”, the Prime Minister would have hoped to turn his attention to other problems facing this country, including his new commitment to “level-up” Britain.
Nonetheless, history will inevitably look back at Boris Johnson’s time in Number 10 and potentially his entire political career with one event in mind.
And even though I have long argued that no deal is better than a bad deal, I am beginning to wonder whether Nigel Farage’s comment that “the war is over” indeed resembles the end of the Brexit era.
The Government has claimed net-victory in the trade talks and stated that “everything that the British public was promised during the 2016 referendum and in the general election last year will be delivered in this deal”.
Whitehall has estimated that of the 65 key areas of negotiation, including the controversial sticking points, Number 10 has succeeded in winning 43 per cent of the issues. By comparison, 40 per cent were recorded as “compromises”, and just 17 per cent were perceived to be a win for Brussels.
However, whilst at the time of writing I and hundreds of other avid Brexit-watchers cannot access the historic 2,000-page document, I decided to do some more digging on the terms and conditions of this “unprecedented” free trade agreement.
With the assistance of several documents compiled by the Guido Fawkes blog and the Government’s 34-page summary explainer, I decided to assess whether or not that is worth £668bn passes a few tests I set for the Prime Minister.
My trade deal requirements, set out in pieces for the Daily Express, Global Vision UK and of course in the Gower Street Journal, required that the UK negotiating team obtained “political and economic independence from Brussels”, especially on the contentious issues of fisheries, the level-playing field and the jurisdiction of the European Courts of Justice.
On fishing waters, I made several comments but my central argument was that rather than preventing any access to European vessels, the British Government should negotiate a deal to “emulate the agreement between Oslo and Brussels”.
Broadly I believe that this has been achieved. Norweigian trawlermen catch around 70 per cent of their own fish, current estimates of the Brexit accord signed between Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen suggest that the UK share will rise from ⅖ to ⅔,
There is also a 5-and-a-half-year transition period on this substantive change to Britain’s coastal waters. During this time the “reciprocal access rights to fish in each other’s waters remain unchanged”, but on the decennial anniversary of the historic 2016 referendum result, the UK will start to “take back control” of its waters.
On the level-playing field, I stated in the Express that I had concerns that the Prime Minister may make concessions “that would diminish the countless economic opportunities Brexit brings”.
Nonetheless, rather than being forced to abide by a level-playing field set by Brussels, the Government has made a promise to uphold high standards on labour, the environment and climate standards. In return we will be able to pursue a smarter regulatory regime that will match the needs of British industries.
All of these were expected, and in many areas, including on the UK’s commitment to ban the export of live animals, Britain already looked set to use Brexit to move beyond EU standards.
The UK will also have its own state aid policy, totally independent from the EU’s “regime”.
Importantly, if there is a perceived “distortion”, then the matter will be settled independently, and there will be no room for ECJ judges to intervene.
“The system that has been agreed upon does not compromise the UK’s sovereignty in any area, does not involve the European Court of Justice in any way, and is reciprocal”, Downing Street’s document suggests.
I was particularly pleased by the additional reassurance that: “There are no provisions constraining our domestic tax regime or tax rates.”
This will enable the UK to potentially utilise Brexit to kickstart its post-Covid economic recovery, especially with the introduction of Sunak’s free-ports and cuts to both corporation tax and VAT, all of which are currently subject to punitive Brussels-based directives.
The Government has also celebrated victory in the final point of contention, ECJ jurisdiction.
Matthew Elliott, the former Chief Executive of Vote Leave, has noted in his assessment for Shore Capital that the agreement “severs” any links between the UK and the ECJ.
This is echoed in the Government’s explainer document stating that: “the agreement provides for the UK to take back control of our laws, affording no role for EU law and no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. The only laws we will have to obey are the ones made by the Parliament we elect.”
Nevertheless, whilst I give this initial approval to the free trade agreement, I suggest it is acceptable and understandable that one wants to wait for the document in full before passing an overall judgement.
However, I would like to conclude my assessment with some consideration of this deal’s repercussions for the Prime Minister.
As I said earlier, Britain’s departure from the EU will ultimately define Boris Johnson’s premiership, as it will for several of his predecessors, most notably Theresa May and David Cameron.
And I have previously written pieces for the Caerulean imploring the Prime Minister to get Brexit done properly to steer his premiership back on track after the pandemic swept it off course.
If the Spartans of the ERG do grant the Brexit deal their unequivocal support and Nigel Farage continues to remain on side, then I cannot envisage how this is not a massive victory for Boris Johnson.
As he did with his withdrawal agreement, he would have exhibited excellent statesmanship and put the Brexit question to bed.
But he may also be able to curry favour with some of the lockdown-sceptic MPs, including Steve Baker and many other ERG members.
Finally, despite the Prime Minister’s personal and professional struggle with Covid-19, his Christmas Eve Brexit triumph and the economic benefits that Brexit will bring may yet be able to reignite the flames of Johnsonism from the embers of Covid-induced Downing Street despair.
So merry Brexmas, Boris.
Here’s to the start of an exciting new future for this great country.
By J Walters