Labour Party commentators, however, both left and right have been pointing out that there is nothing to celebrate in this new arrangement because it has no commitment to important Labour concerns on workers’ rights.
May’s Withdrawal Agreement had included an article on “non-regression of labour and social standards”, which guaranteed fundamental rights at work, occupational health and safety, fair working conditions and employment standards”. The text said that the EU and UK would “…ensure that the level of protection provided for by law, regulations and practices is not reduced below the level provided by the common standards applicable within the Union and the United Kingdom”. This has been expunged from the new text and a diluted commitment added to the political declaration.
Much of the rest of Johnson’s deal is depressingly similar to the worst aspects of May’s. In May’s political declaration under Economic Partnership we are told that the economic partnership would be “underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition” and in section xiv of that document we were told that this would cover “state aid, competition … building on the level playing field arrangements provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement…”
That has remained the same in Boris Johnson’s version. In other words, Johnson is committing to implementing the very rules that might inhibit nationalisation of rail and mail and the creation of a national investment bank.
What has changed in Johnson’s deal is that the notorious backstop designed to ensure frictionless movement of goods over the Irish border has gone.
In the words of the legal advice offered to the Prime Minister May by the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, the consequences of the backstop were as follows:
“…the current drafting of the protocol… does not provide for a mechanism that is likely to enable the UK lawfully to exit the UK wide customs union without a subsequent agreement. This remains the case even if parties are still negotiating many years later, and even if the parties believe that talks have broken down and there is no prospect of a future relationship.”
This was no accidental consequence of a desire to address the ‘special status’ of Northern Ireland on the part of EU negotiators: in the book Blind Man’s Brexit by Desmet and Stourton we are treated to this insight into Michel Barnier’s motivation in relation to the ‘Backstop’. Barnier admits in what the authors describe as a ‘startling revelation’ but was fairly obvious to most of us sceptical of EU intentions:
“My strategy was to use Ireland if I my say - and here he broke into French – pour emmener vers l’union douanière ( to bring them towards a customs union).”
Boris Johnson has succeeded in escaping this trap by replacing the backstop with a commitment that Northern Ireland will retain substantial regulatory alignment with the EU after Brexit. This, and not the backstop will now be permanent.
A key difference between May’s and Johnson’s deal is not only the legal texts, but political intentions.
Theresa May had committed the government to maintaining the current level of European Union workers’ rights, partly in an effort to win Labour MPs’ support for her deal. David Frost, Johnson’s replacement for Olly Robbins as chief UK EU negotiator, wants to scrap May’s commitment to protect British workers’ rights. He is on record as seeing Brexit as an opportunity to escape the EU’s “heavy labour market regulation” according to The Independent.
In light of this it would be impossible for anyone on the left to support Boris Johnson’s deal. It may be the arrogance he displayed in his excessive show of bonhomie with his fellow EU high priests of corporate capital at the end of the EU negotiations may yet return like a boomerang to knock him of his altar.