For one fleeting moment, the old Boris was back, even though it didn’t last long. By voting against Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework, Johnson’s message was clear: the Tories can never again be the party of the technocrats, the bureaucrats and the Eurocrats.
The historic democratic realignment he fronted in 2016 and 2019 may be in abeyance, battered and bludgeoned by partygate, generalised incompetence and the return of failed establishment Toryism, but it hasn’t disappeared. Below the surface, the vital forces Johnson tapped into are bubbling as strongly as ever, desperate for a new hero to empower the disgruntled majority.
The divide in British politics – and in the rest of the developed world – has, if anything, widened. The first camp believes in the top-down rule of experts, social engineers, lawyers, economists and philosopher-kings, empowered to construct, enforce and impose a “better”, more “rational” world; the second camp believes that power flows upwards, that we should listen to and respect the values, voices and opinions of ordinary people of all ethnicities and creeds who play by the rules, work hard, love their country and seek to improve their families’ lives.
The Tories must once again be the voice of this second group, or they are finished. They must be not just Eurosceptic, but also sceptical of net zero (and supportive of technological solutions to environmental problems), anti-European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), anti-woke, pro-economic growth for all, and pro the creation of independent yeoman-citizens who stand on their own two feet, own their own homes and are able to accumulate financial wealth.
Johnson’s fatal error – the real, substantive case against him – was that he was the first Tory leader since Lady Thatcher to stand against declinism and domestic and international technocracy and yet ended up being defeated by all three. He increased tax and spending, didn’t deregulate, couldn’t tackle the housing crisis, tolerated woke extremism and failed to smash the obsolete Northcote-Trevelyan Civil Service when he had the opportunity after his election victory and then again after the state imploded during Covid.
He signed up to green supranationalism, international corporate tax harmonisation and a war on the suburban, consumerist lifestyle. He went against his Swedish instincts on Covid for too long. He performed a miracle to leave the EU in the legal sense but then botched it, delivering an underwhelming, business-as-usual Brexit. His base was bitterly disappointed at the lack of visible change; combined with partygate and the Tories’ poor performance in other areas, it is no wonder polls show slumping support for leaving the EU.
Intelligent, principled Eurosceptics can honestly differ on whether Sunak’s Windsor Framework is a net good or bad, especially given the present state of public opinion. The original Northern Ireland Protocol was a classic “unequal treaty” but also a necessary evil, in the sense that Theresa May’s calamitous surrender to the EU, and Brussels’s self-destructive negotiating inertia, meant that by the time he finally seized power it was too late for Johnson’s government to turn the negotiating clock back to the morning of June 24 2016. The cost of no deal was too great. It was necessary to back Johnson’s agreement to ensure the cleanest possible Brexit while preparing to rapidly restart renegotiations.
Sunak’s deal improves matters in several areas. There will be reduced checks for certain goods sent from Great Britain across the Irish Sea and destined solely for Northern Ireland; there will be significant ameliorations to the VAT and excise duty regime and on allowing UK-authorised medicines into Northern Ireland. It demonstrates that much of the nonsense spouted by the British Remainer elite was absurd, untrue and insulting.
The EU will accept “green lanes’’ and the (obvious) principle that the single market isn’t automatically “placed at risk” in the absence of extreme border checks or bans on medicines. It was despicable that they didn’t agree to this from the start, and all the “experts” who rationalised the EU’s immoral behaviour should hang their heads in shame.
Yet Sunak also massively oversold his agreement. The document in which he gives his version of what has been achieved is almost unrecognisable to the EU’s own explanation. His claim that 1,700 pages of EU law are “disapplied” is false. The Windsor Framework’s changes to the Protocol are cosmetic: the EU has made a series of practical concessions to alleviate certain, narrowly defined problems, but these can be withdrawn at any time.
The incentives remain – or, paradoxically, might even have been increased – for the UK as a whole not to diverge from EU rules. As Martin Howe KC and Barnabas Reynolds point out in their “star chamber” report for the ERG, any UK deregulation might lead to the immediate imposition of fresh checks, necessitating a new negotiation. They also argue convincingly that the Stormont brake, meant to empower the Northern Ireland assembly, is “practically useless”. Perhaps the biggest problem is the way this deal is being presented by establishment Tories as the final thing, a means to put Brexit behind us and to start tying closer links with Brussels.
On balance, therefore, the 22 Tory heroes were right to vote against this deal, as was the DUP. It was vital to put down a marker. Sunak’s Commons majority is a mere tactical win that won’t actually help his longer-term strategy or allow power-sharing to return to Northern Ireland. He hoped the Windsor Framework, by smoothing relations with the EU, would help his plan to tackle small boat crossings, a far more important priority to him than finalising Brexit. But it is hard to see how this works without the UK pulling out of the ECHR, triggering an all-out bust-up with the EU, cancelling Windsor and forcing another, nastier renegotiation of our relationship with Brussels.
The future of the Tory party is on the radical centre-Right. To win next year, Sunak must fix immigration (and much else besides); if he fails, the next Tory leader will be chosen by the party membership and will be a Brexiteer, anti-ECHR and anti-woke. Partygate’s ludicrous shenanigans may or may not finish off Johnson’s political career, but it won’t destroy his entire legacy. The next Tory PM will have to be more of a Johnsonite than Boris ever was.