Can Boris Survive Brexit?

This week we come back to Brexit and ask whether Boris Johnson has a good way out of the current negotiations with the EU over a trade deal. First we talk with Kenneth Armstrong, Professor of European Law, about the thinking and the reality behind the government's Internal Market Bill. Then David, Helen and Chris Brooke explore the politics of success and failure in the negotiations. Can the Union survive? Does the government have a coherent strategy? And how much trouble is Johnson really in?


Talking Points:


Is the Internal Market Bill just a negotiating tactic, or is it a genuine safeguard for a future world in which there is no trade deal? 

  • The government is worried that the wording of the Northern Ireland Protocol risks the possibility of the EU overreaching in its interpretation in ways that would make it more difficult for the UK to pursue its own state aid policy, for example.
  • The government is now saying that it would only invoke these provisions if the EU acts in ‘bad faith.’
  • The problem with that argument is that the agreements already have their own safeguard mechanisms. Why do you need a domestic legal mechanism?
  • The substance of the Internal Market Bill is also getting serious pushback from the devolved authorities.


The EU has launched infringement proceedings against the UK. 

  • It’s a structured process with different phases. 
  • The imperative is to try to seek a resolution without needing to take the action before the Court of Justice.
  • The Commission’s argument is that the UK is acting on bad faith. 
  • In the transition period, the UK is effectively treated as a member state. What happens when the UK is fully outside of the transition period? 
  • For now at least, all this political theatre isn’t immediately derailing the process of getting an agreement on a future relationship.


The ultimate obstacles to a deal are existential: the UK wants to guarantee respect for its autonomy, so does the EU.

  • The EU’s great fear is that the model of a social market economy that it has been building among its member states would be threatened if the UK could engage in regulatory competition or distorted subsidies with the EU.
  • That’s why the level playing field rules and state aid are so important for the EU. 
  • There’s also the geopolitical question: the consequences for both sides of not reaching a deal would be significant.


Johnson gave his conference speech and he barely mentioned Brexit.

  • The stakes of the ongoing negotiations are as high as they were a year ago, but the political heat—at least for now—has gone out of it.
  • Johnson hopes that if you can get through the next few years and stabilize the Union from the present threats then it will be possible to put the Union on more solid constitutional groundings.
  • This is a politics of crisis. There’s not a clear strategic vision.


The pandemic has made the politics of devolution even more complicated because it’s created a de facto English government, which is the UK parliament.

  • The more the Scottish government, the Northern Irish government and the Welsh government disagree about what the rules should be, the more the fact that there is an English government comes to the surface.
  • This becomes an electoral issue too.


Is Johnson on his way out?

  • His track record may be a liability where the Union is concerned. There may be better people to lead the Conservative party on the Scottish question.
  • Making a deal with the EU could hurt him with the Spartans of the European Research Group.
  • Johnson’s health could also be an issue; that’s why he’s determined to show that he doesn’t have long-COVID.


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