If consistency is the sign of a small mind, then Boris Johnson must have a brain the size of a planet. For he has slid from position to position on the EU like Bambi on ice.
In 2003, he opened a speech to the House of Commons, in which he advocated Turkish membership of the EU, thus:
“It is hard to think of a measure that the Government could have brought to the House that I could support more unreservedly and with greater pleasure than this Bill to expand the European Union. To sum up my response, I would merely say, “And about time too.”
He went on to confirm: “I am not by any means an ultra-Eurosceptic. In some ways, I am a bit of a fan of the European Union. If we did not have one, we would invent something like it.”
By 2012 he was already flirting with Euroscepticism. Nevertheless, he was at pains to reassure the public that his vision meant that: “We could construct a relationship with the EU that more closely resembled that of Norway or Switzerland – except that we would be inside the single market council, and able to shape legislation”. He confirmed in 2013 that he would vote to stay in the single market and that he was in favour of it.
In early 2016 he famously wrote two articles, one in favour of Leave and one in favour of Remain, before plumping for team Brexit.
Vote Leave chose to prioritise immigration control over access to the single market in their ultimately-successful campaign, demonising the Turks that Boris Johnson himself had previously campaigned in Parliament to allow into the EU. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson still hankered after his earlier position, stating even in the wake of the referendum result that Britain could have access to the single market (something that was rapidly squelched from Brussels).
Negotiations with the EU did not go well. Still, in July 2017 he announced with his sunny optimism that “There is no plan for no deal, because we’re going to get a great deal”. He did not help with the negotiating process. In the same speech he said that the EU could “go whistle” if they expected Britain to pay a settlement on withdrawing from the EU.
Britain nevertheless agreed to make a payment to settle its obligations in September 2017 and in December 2017 he congratulated the Prime Minister’s successful negotiation of the first stage (which included an agreement to this payment, the foundations of the Northern Irish backstop and protections for EU citizens in Britain). As late as March 2018, he opined that “The PM’s Mansion House speech sets out a clear and convincing vision for our future partnership with the EU”. He wobbled back and forth for the first half of 2018, with his apotheosis being first to toast the Chequers proposal and then, three days later (after David Davis had resigned), to resign over it.
In September 2018, he described the Chequers plan as “substantially worse than the status quo”. He maintained that position when the final deal emerged in November 2018, describing it even before its release as “vassal state stuff”. Despite that, Boris Johnson eventually voted for it in March 2019 at the third time of asking.
In March 2019 and April 2019, Britain twice confirmed to the EU (in return for obtaining an extension to the Article 50 notice period) that it would not seek to reopen negotiations over the withdrawal agreement.
Boris Johnson secured leadership of the Conservative party and with it the Premiership, campaigning on leaving the EU on 31 October 2019, deal or no deal. He now argues that this is required to respect the referendum result, despite having wafted away the idea of no deal as late as a year after the referendum result.
It is against that background that we must assess Boris Johnson’s current line on the EU. His workrate has declined. He wrote two articles in 2016 before deciding how to campaign in the referendum. This month, he wrote only half a letter to the EU setting out his revised position.
He sets out his objections but does not propose a solution. The backstop that formed part of the interim deal that he had once congratulated the Prime Minister on is now described as “anti-democratic”. He wants the problem to be looked at in the next phase. He recognises that “there would need to be a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period. We are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitments might help”.
When you’re looking to rewrite an agreement – especially one that your side has specifically agreed twice that it will not seek to rewrite –it’s usually best to have a clear proposal that your weary negotiating partners can weigh. And when you’re looking to build confidence – especially when you have skidded all over the place on a subject – you need to have a simple and compelling proposition. Since his government also simultaneously appears to be undermining the protections offered to EU citizens in Britain that had previously been agreed by a government he formed part of, it is hard to take this latest development remotely seriously.
Boris Johnson is many things but he is not stupid. He will not have high hopes that this initiative will result in changes to the withdrawal agreement. His hopes lie elsewhere. He has spent the best part of 20 years telling the British public on the subject of the EU whatever he thinks will best serve his interests. Given his track record, you might well think that he is insulting the British public’s intelligence. Sadly, it seems only too likely that he has its accurate measure.