Opening debate on his 110-page Withdrawal Agreement Bill, the PM said MPs should vote for his agreement to avoid a no-deal departure and “move our country on”.
But he was forced to rely on some eyebrow-raising arguments as MPs threatened to vote down his three-day timetable and give the Bill more scrutiny.
That, in turn, would make him almost certain to miss the October 31 deadline.
“If we pass this Bill tonight we will have the opportunity to address the priorities not just of our relations with the EU, but the people’s priorities at home,” he said.
“If we do this deal, if we pass this deal and the legislation that enables it, we can turn the page and allow this country and this Parliament to begin to heal and unite.”
The problem is, Mr Johnson may have been less than totally honest with MPs while trying to persuade them. Here are some lies or half-truths he told the Commons.
1. Northern Ireland leaving with the UK ‘whole and entire’
WHAT HE SAID: “For the vast majority of the Northern Irish economy, Northern Ireland exits with the rest of the UK whole and entire.”
WHAT HIS DEAL ACTUALLY SAYS: Northern Ireland will share single market rules with the EU. This means many animal products from Britain need checking at border posts, which carries a fee of at least £47. As for customs rules, while legally Northern Ireland will share a territory with the UK not the EU, customs checks will still happen on goods from the rest of the UK. That’s because they will have EU tariffs applied if they’re “at risk” of moving into the EU at a later date. Government analysis of the deal says goods sent from Britain to Belfast will need two customs forms signed, raising costs for business – and putting a border down the Irish Sea.
2. There’ll be ‘no checks’ on goods from Britain to Northern Ireland
WHAT HE SAID: “There are no checks GB-NI. There will be some light touch measures to ensure there is no illegal trade in endangered animal species and banned firearms,” Mr Johnson told the DUP’s Nigel Dodds when asked about customs checks. Later he added: “There will be no checks, I repeat, there will be no checks GB-NI.”
WHAT HIS DEAL ACTUALLY SAYS: On customs, the government’s own impact assessment says: “Goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be required to complete both import declarations and Entry Summary (ENS) Declarations because the UK will be applying the EU’s Customs Code in Northern Ireland. This will result in additional administrative costs to businesses.” On single market rules, the assessment says: “There will be additional documentation required on all agri-food goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to ensure that they comply with the necessary regulations… There would be additional fees to cover document and physical inspections as well as Export Health Certificates and other administrative checks prior to arrival at the border.
3. Northern Ireland customs arrangements are ‘transitory’
WHAT HE SAID: “The House will know full well that these are transitory arrangements. And if the people of Northern Ireland choose to dissent from them, they melt away unless by a majority they keep to retain them.”
WHAT HIS DEAL ACTUALLY SAYS: It is true that Northern Ireland’s Assembly will get a vote every four years on whether to keep the customs arrangements. But it’s hardly “transitory”. The first vote is almost four years after the end of the transition period – so late 2024, or if it’s extended by two years, late 2026. At that point they can continue by a simple majority, without cross-community support. And if they do get both unionists and nationalists, then the arrangements are even less “transitory” – continuing for another eight years without a vote.
4. British fishing ‘will not be a bargaining chip’
WHAT HE SAID: “Fisheries will not be a bargaining chip, we will take back 100% of the marine wealth of this country.”
WHAT HIS DEAL ACTUALLY SAYS: Access to Britain’s coastal waters and quotas on what fish can be caught, where and when, will not default to the UK government’s sole control. Instead it will be decided by negotiations between the EU and UK as part of a future trade deal. Negotiations which, you would imagine, might involve plenty of bargaining.
5. Britain will live under ‘British laws, enforced by British judges’
WHAT HE SAID: “ Once more under this agreement British people will be able to live under laws made by representatives whom they elect and who they alone can elect and remove. Laws enforced by British judges in British courts.”
WHAT HIS DEAL ACTUALLY SAYS: Clause 1 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill makes clear that it replaces the European Communities Act 1972 – which gave effect to the UK’s membership of the European Economic Community. However it also makes clear that the Act, which means that the UK is subject to the ECJ, “continues to have effect in domestic law”. And it means that during transition the UK will remain subject to not only existing, but also any new, EU law.
6. There can be ‘no regression’ on workers’ rights
WHAT HE SAID: “People will need reassurance about this. There can be no regression. The UK will maintain the highest possible standards. If the EU decides that it wishes to introduce a new piece of legislation on social protection then it is of course automatic that this House should consider that, consider. And as I say there will be an amendable motion by which the Government will give parliamentary time for the implementation… of that measure.”
WHAT HIS DEAL ACTUALLY SAYS: The legislation sets out that workers’ rights currently derived from EU law will continue to be applied in the UK, including the the Working Time Directive and the Agency Workers’ Regulations. But crucially the agreement moved that commitment for a “regression lock” from the legally binding text with the EU to an aspiration for future negotiations – and leaves it in the hands of future parliaments. The Bill also says ministers won’t have to guarantee every future law would not regress on EU workers’ rights. Instead they can make a statement refusing to make that guarantee. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has said the Workers’ Rights proposals in the WAB were “meaningless”, adding: “We still have no legally binding guarantee that UK rights will keep pace with EU minimum standards.”
Boris Johnson finally agreed a Brexit deal with the EU on 17 October 2019, though it still needs approval by MPs.
The 64-page list of amendments keeps a transition period up to 31 December 2020 and the £39bn divorce bill. But it scraps the Irish backstop, an insurance policy designed at preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland the Republic.
In the backstop’s place would effectively be ‘two borders’ in a hybrid system:
- Northern Ireland and Britain would share a legal customs territory – technically forcing customs checks on goods crossing the 310-mile border with the Republic. But in practice, to avoid checks at the border, the checks will instead happen when goods reach Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland. Critics say this puts a customs border across the Irish Sea – more of this below.
Northern Ireland and the Republic would share some EU single market rules – forcing checks on manufactured and agricultural products crossing the Irish Sea.
The Northern Ireland Assembly – known as Stormont – will get a vote every four years on whether to let EU law continue. But this vote could be passed by a simple majority – denying the DUP a veto on staying under EU laws long-term.
Meanwhile commitments on workers’ rights are deprioritised – moved to the non-legally-binding Political Declaration for agreement later.
For a full explainer click here.