I have never cared for Boris Johnson as a politician. Despite that, I voted for him twice as London mayor. That actually says a lot about Boris for me. I can point to the fact that what I really did in 2008 and 2012 was vote against Ken Livingstone. Boris was just the lucky recipient – he was in the right place at the right time. Yet when a politician is always in the right place at the right time, there comes a moment when you have to stop putting it down to simply luck.
Getting the trade agreement with the EU completed this week is nothing short of political genius on the part of Boris Johnson. If Dominic Cummings were still working for him, a lot of political journalists would right now be crediting him for getting this over the line; but no, it was down to Boris. I don’t praise him because the deal is a good one; it is as thin as I thought any agreement completed between the two sides would be at this stage of the negotiations. There are huge gaps, most notably on services, particularly on financial services. The cave-in on fishing was almost total from the UK side. The ability for Britain to diverge from the EU on standards has been made complex and difficult by even the basic terms of the deal, never mind what the small print might have to say.
No, the genius I have credited to the Prime Minister here resides in perfectly understanding what he could and could not get away with politically. He boxed himself in with the negotiations, leaving himself seemingly both no time and no space, before then demonstrating that one of the sides of the box was completely illusory. He also made brilliant use of the time constriction, turning it from something oppressing his goals to a factor that he turned into a huge positive. Johnson used the running out of the clock to bounce a lot of people who might otherwise have thought twice about it all into accepting the deal – some of them being the Prime Minister’s sworn political enemies.
For months, Nigel Farage has been shouting to anyone who would listen what he would and wouldn’t accept in a trade deal with the EU. One of the big items was fishing. The evening before the deal was announced, there appeared to be foreshadowing of what may be in store for the Tories in the face of accepting the EU’s terms. ‘It sounds like the British team have dropped the ball before the line,’ Farage tweeted. ‘No wonder they want a Christmas Eve announcement to hide the fisheries sell-out.’ And yet, the following day, despite the fishing terms being worse for the UK than predicted, Farage declared the ‘war is over’ and that Boris is the man who ‘finished the job’.
Johnson somehow knew that, for all of his bluster, Farage would fold in the face of a deal, whatever its terms. The threat of a blowback from the hard-line Brexiteers was always illusory. The Prime Minister understood that enough to base a huge amount of his closing strategy with the European Union on the assumption. It was a massive risk – had Farage come out fighting, it could have established the deal as ‘not real Brexit’ in the minds of enough hardcore Leavers to substantially wound Boris.
I have no doubt that both Farage and Starmer will try and criticise elements of the deal as its effects unfold in reality during the coming years. However, they have both destroyed their respective platforms for doing so effectively already. When Starmer tries to bash the agreement in future, the response will be simple: ‘Well, you voted for it.’ Farage can try and roll back on his acceptance of the agreement in the days ahead, saying that in retrospect the deal wasn’t ‘real Brexit’. But it will be too late; he passed over his big moment to do any real damage to Johnson and his deal. Farage and Starmer have unconsciously conspired to give Boris a huge political moment in the sun that will be very difficult to subsequently diminish.
What comes next will be difficult for the Prime Minister. He has to bed down a thin deal with the EU that will have lots of immediate negative economic effects, all while dealing with the ongoing Covid crisis. Yet he has escaped a huge political bear trap this week, not only with minimal damage but in almost total triumph. He did what no other leader of the Conservative party has been able to do for the last three decades in uniting the right on the terms of leaving the European Union. Even if you loathe Boris Johnson – even if you hate Brexit – you have to credit the man with the political genius of what he has accomplished this week. When someone is lucky each and every time, at some point it has to be credited as a skill.