Boris Johnson may spend less time in the Commons than his predecessor, but only because his biggest challenges lie elsewhere.
Future relationship battleground takes shape as von der Leyen sets out negotiation parameters
It took some time, but Boris Johnson finally made his first post-Christmas Commons appearance yesterday. He returned to the chamber for PMQs, the first of the new Parliament, and already it is a very different event to previously.
– An increasingly rare appearance –
As Michael Deacon writes, with John Bercow gone and Labour and the Remainers cowed, PMQs is not only back to its regulation length of 30 minutes, but it’s also a rather sedate affair.
Still, the Prime Minister’s absence from the chamber for most of this week is yet another sign of the changed times. The Commons has been tamed, for now, by the large Tory majority, and so it has returned to its predominant role as a rubber stamp. See, for example, how the Withdrawal Agreement Bill sailed through yet more stages yesterday.
Instead, Johnson’s focus will be on his Cabinet. Already there is speculation that this is a return to “Mayor Boris” and his habit of delegation.
That may be the case, but it’s also a reflection of the simple fact that the challenges of his premiership lie elsewhere.
The headline was von der Leyen’s warning that a comprehensive deal cannot be completed by December, when the transition period is set to end. That’s hardly controversial. With negotiations set to begin in earnest only in March, that leaves just seven months to complete a task that usually takes the best part of a decade.
Yet she also offered a suggestion of what would happen instead. Not a total absence of any agreement – so long to the EU mantra that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”? – instead, she said, “we will have to prioritise.”
That may mean a piecemeal set of deals to cover the most vital of areas,with the rest to come later. Although whose priorities get priority is unclear. (The EU has been reluctant to agree to a sector-by-sector format, so if this does end up being the case, it would be a significant victory for London.)
– Leyen out the rules – As Peter Foster explains, von der Leyen also set out clearly the choices Johnson will have to make. “The more divergence there is the more distant the partnership has to be”, she said. It was also, Peter points out, the classic EU tactic of setting the grounds and parameters for discussion first. As in the last round, set the rules you want and you’ve won half the battle.
There was also a bit of brouhaha at von der Leyen’s talk of free movement. This shouldn’t be misunderstood as a demand, rather it was a statement that the EU sees its four freedoms as indivisible. Britain has rejected free movement of people and so it cannot benefit from free movement of goods and capital.
Of more consequence was her insistence that there would need to be level-playing-field commitments on regulation to allow the negotiation of a zero-quota, zero-tariff deal.
That could prove one of the key battlegrounds, with Johnson having to choose between protecting existing industry in his new seats and the loosening of regulations he and Dominic Cummings see as vital to the creation of thriving future industries such as artificial intelligence and biotech.
These are, in many ways, the exact same questions that Britain has spent the best part of four years debating. The difference this time is that there can be no more kicking of the can.
Still relevant | How long will the Commons stay tamed? The most important factor in answering that question is the European Research Group. As I wrote last month, Johnson’s majority isn’t as big as it looks and should the ERG want tokick up a fuss, it won’t actually need to rebel in Parliament to get results. If the ERG lays down its arms completely, well, that’s an entirely different story.
Whether it does or not could be decided at an AGM this evening. As Camilla Tominey reports, ERG stalwarts such as Steve Baker and Mark Francois fully intend to maintain their influence and keep the PM true to his word. And it’s not just on Brexit where they will have a say. The ERG could well end up fighting a rearguard action to defend their idea of the Thatcherite legacy in the face of Johnson’s interventionist “One Nationism”.
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