by Peter Franklin
Monday, 8
February 2021

Tory wars over Brexit are far from over

Hostilities between Gavin Barwell and Dan Hannan are a sign of more to come
by Peter Franklin
Old loyalties are causing problems once again. Credit: Getty

Blue-on-blue hostilities have broken out again. For the latest action, see Gavin Barwell’s furious response — “where to start with this drivel” — to a Dan Hannan column in the Telegraph — “the Northern Ireland protocol should never have been agreed.”

Barwell and Hannan are both now in the Lords, which should make for some lively encounters, but previous to his ennoblement Barwell was Downing Street Chief of Staff to Theresa May. Thus he won’t have taken kindly to Hannan’s attack on the Brexit deal that May tried and failed to get through the House of Commons.

An exasperated Barwell points out that the May deal was designed to lessen the difficulties that Hannan complains about in his column:

“The Protocol *is* causing real problems. Some of us spent years warning hardcore Brexiteers that they would not get an FTA without a separate arrangement for NI and the more distant the GB/EU relationship the more painful it would be to GB/NI trade. They didn’t listen…”
- Gavin Barwell, Twitter

Despite the European Commission’s disastrous attempt to play politics with the Irish border (which he condemns), Barwell has no time for those who say the UK should mess around with the Northern Ireland Protocol. Its problems can only be resolved within the framework we’ve only just signed up to.

Having slapped down one of the most pugnacious Brexiteers, Barwell’s comments are being enthusiastically retweeted by Remainers. And that’s a bit rich, because it wasn’t just the DUP and ERG who voted down the May deal, was it?

The reason why we don’t have the previous Prime Minister’s softer Brexit is because the Remain parties made common cause with the hardcore Leavers to kill it. Obviously, the members of this unholy alliance had conflicting objectives: the Leavers were hoping for a harder Brexit while the Remainers thought they could kill off Brexit altogether.

It was the hardline Leavers who got (most of) what they wanted, but the Remainers are equally responsible for the outcome. Indeed, their culpability is the greater because their goal — overturning the result of a referendum — was undemocratic, while what the ERG’s aim was a just an interpretation of what had been voted for.

It’s worth remembering that there was an even softer version of Brexit available — Britain leaving the EU, but remaining within EFTA and EEA. Theresa May continues to get the blame for rejecting that option, but she only did so because it would have meant accepting free movement of labour. In other words, Britain would not have been able to take back control of its immigration policy. May rightly judged that this was a red line she could not cross.

But let’s not forget who insisted on free movement: the EU itself. Never mind that the UK only wanted to control its borders not shut them — and would have continued to employ a large chunk of the EU’s jobless masses. But instead of reaching a sensible compromise to achieve the closest possible relationship with post-Brexit Britain, the EU insisted on ideological purity. The vaccine fiasco isn’t the only example of where federalist monomania gets you.

As very recent history, Theresa May’s premiership has been judged harshly. In the longer term though, I believe that posterity’s verdict will be more generous. Though she undoubtedly made mistakes, the bigger picture is that she always tried to do the most reasonable thing that circumstances allowed, but was undone by unreasonable actors on every side.

Join the discussion

  • I understand the EU’s position – that’s something different to liking it.

    “You don’t think EU is taking the peace issue seriously – they would disagree based on their public statements.”

    Of course the EU is never going to say in its public statements that it doesn’t care about the peace!!! What would you expect???? It’s about reading between the lines and trying to understand the ulterior motives.

  • No one cares about what happens in Ireland out in the rest of the EU. I don’t think anyone really understands the issue and they don’t really want to either. The general reaction to unrest would be to assume that it was Britain’s fault (which the EU-centric media would repeat relentlessly) and beyond that – not to care at all. It’s not on their doorstep after all.

    The EU taking the Irish position was a no brainer really…however, what the EU failed to fully appreciate (or chose to ignore, depending on which way you look at it) was that playing a game of “might is right” in NI is the way of absolutely no good whatsoever. The Irish position was pursued in the manner of a steamroller, the interests of the Unionists were no treated as equally deserving. May didn’t do an awful lot to push back on their behalf, she was far too fixated on her own plans. Johnson has been significantly better at knowing when to push for the Unionist cause and when to tell the DUP enough is enough. Although the position he took over from May meant he had to make the best of a bad situation. The result is a flawed, unstable agreement that will collapse at some point – but the UK has to try and make it work first.

    My opinion is that the Irish were somewhat instrumentalised by the EU which used the issue of Northern Ireland to pursue its other objectives with the UK (if not frustrating Brexit entirely, then keeping the UK in its regulatory orbit and if not that, then performing a kind of annexation by regulation). The last few weeks have shown very well that peace isn’t really the first priority for the EU.

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