How will Boris Johnson use Britain’s hard-won “freedom” from Brussels?


Boris Johnson ended a grim political year with a smile on his face. “I will vote for your deal,” Labor leader Keir Starmer sadly remarked to the British Prime Minister after an emergency debate on his post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.

“You won’t regret it,” Mr Johnson said as they walked together to the same House of Commons polling hall on Wednesday. After four years of Brexit acrimony, it looked like a chapter closed on British politics.

Mr. Johnson approval ratings were beaten in 2020 because of his handling of Covid-19, but on Brexit he ended the year on a rare high, with praise from Tory MPs ringing in his ears for negotiating a new relationship with the EU .

During Wednesday’s emergency debate, various Tory MPs put Mr Johnson’s name in the same sentence as Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Alexander the Great. Sir Keir reluctantly admitted that while the trade deal was “thin”, it was better than no deal at all.

There have been criticisms. Former Prime Minister Theresa May noted that Mr Johnson made a trade deal in part because he set his targets so low: “We have a trade deal that benefits the EU, but not a trade deal that benefits the EU. services it would have benefited the UK. “

Sir Keir noted that Mr Johnson’s claim that his deal eliminates ‘non-tariff barriers’ was patently false: businesses were facing new customs bureaucracy, controls and delays in doing business with the EU from 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.

But Mr Johnson had achieved something that many had not predicted. He led a unified Conservative party in divisive lobbies – alongside 162 Labor MPs – to support a new settlement with the EU. Neither Conservatives nor Labor want to come back anytime soon.

“The leave argument is over – whichever side we were on, the divisions are over,” Sir Keir said. Mr Johnson, for once able to rise above the quagmire of the Covid-19 crisis, said: “The fate of this great country now lies firmly in our hands.”

Now Mr Johnson has his Brexit – the ‘hard’ version he championed – the obvious question arises: what is he going to do with it? Given that Brexiters have had almost five years to answer this question, critics say the answer remains surprisingly sketchy.

The Office of Fiscal Responsibility estimates that the country has already given up on 4% GDP growth, as businesses will start from Friday morning grappling with the new trade bureaucracy brought on by Brexit.

Global free trade deals promised by Brexiters have so far been little more than ‘renewals’ of terms Britain enjoyed under EU trade deals that expired on December 31 . hundred.

Exercising the ‘freedoms’ of Brexit in a way that begins to compensate for the economic blow will be one of Mr Johnson’s biggest tasks for 2021 and so far the details are unclear. he said he asked Rishi Sunak, Chancellor, to do a “great exercise” on corporate taxation and regulations.

The prospect of deregulation – including the reduction of EU social protections such as working time directive, which sets workers a maximum of 48 hours per week – was a big driver of conservative Euroscepticism in the past, but not so much now.

A party which now represents sections of the working class in northern England is unlikely to strengthen that support by reducing workplace protections: in any event, the EU-UK trade agreement includes “non-regression” clauses to prevent either party from going back on regulations and standards.

Instead, the government is proposing fragmentary ideas such as the abolition of the “tampon tax”: a new zero rate of value-added tax will be applied to health products from January 1, a previously complicated measure. by EU VAT rules.

Mr Sunak has a policy of ‘freeports’ in the making – zones of swollen business – but economists argue such zones are allowed under EU rules and fear they simply displace economic activity from one part of the UK to another.

Mr Johnson wants to raise animal welfare standards, for example by banning exports of live animals. He also said in his New Year’s message that he wanted to introduce more agile regulation, helping “to energize our ambition to be a science superpower.” But the economic arguments in favor of Brexit seem less developed than those of sovereignty.

Mark François, head of the EU’s pro-Brexit conservative research group, said: “Now that we have ‘cried out for freedom’ it must make sense for ministries to come together and undertake a thorough analysis of the areas in which we are concerned. to apply this freedom to deviate from EU regulations. “

The UK-EU trade deal established a mechanism to dissuade the two camps from excessively disagreements over regulation, but some question whether Mr Johnson’s main interest was to secure “sovereignty”, rather than having a cohesive plan for how to use it.

Philip Hammond, former conservative chancellor, said he expected some “cosmetic differences” but nothing that does not transform the competitiveness of Great Britain. “This has always been my concern – that we buy a notional right of divergence, which we will not use, at a very high economic price.”

Meanwhile, former Tory Deputy Prime Minister David Lidington said he expected the government to roll out a range of tax incentives and other grants to boost regional development – echoing the € 750 billion Covid-19 relaunch from the EU.

But Mr Lidington added that there was ‘no doubt’ Mr Johnson’s position was strengthened by securing a deal, as he faces a disheartening 2021 with perilous elections. in the Scottish Parliament and in local authorities, not to mention the economic and health crisis of the coronavirus.

“It has been settled,” said Mr Lidington, reflecting on a Brexit saga that has devoured the UK government for nearly half a decade. “And having seen this success, it frees up time, energy and resources at the ministerial and official level to focus on Covid and recovery.”

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