Brian Monteith: This is the week that may come to define Boris Johnson’s premiership

The most important events are not always those that attract the immediate interest of news media – and this week is a case in point.

Crew members of the Radiant Star fishing in the North Sea. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

There shall undoubtedly be continued reverberations around Scotland’s exam fiasco, only the focus shall change towards the collateral impact on university admissions and the associated financial costs. There shall also be interest in the Prime Minister holidaying in Scotland, with all sorts of ephemeral reporting that shall be of no long term consequence.

In contrast I do not expect a great amount of coverage of this week’s recommencement of negotiations for the future relationship between the EU and UK – yet it is a crucial moment, for the outcome should determine if we are to have a trade deal or not, and in turn what the Prime Minister’s political future will be. Through the shape of these outcomes the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of British people will be impacted and possibly even the survival of the British state as we know it.

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If progress is made towards a establishing a relationship that mirrors the EU’s trade deals with Canada or Japan then we can expect Boris Johnson to claim it as a great achievement – and he would be right to do so, for at the moment it looks highly unlikely.

The EU position continues be that of making Brexit as politically painful and expensive as possible – even at great cost to its own member states’ exporters – so as to provide a deterrent against the electorates of any other countries believing there could be benefits from joining the UK’s exodus. For example, Canada and Japan did not have to concede access to their fishing grounds to obtain a trade deal yet the EU insists such an arrangement must exist if it is to agree free trade for car manufacturers or cheese makers or chemical producers.

It is not an exaggeration to say that disquiet about the UK government’s recent performance has been growing amongst its supporters. Concerns about a lack of response to the culture war that blew up a month ago; the inability to protect the UK’s own borders from exploitation by human traffickers; the mixed messages on masks and quarantining that suggests an unhealthy influence of focus groups and polling rather than a consistent strategy or an evidence-based response to the pandemic – all these and other mis-steps have been eroding confidence that Boris Johnson’s administration is delivering the type of government that voters expected.

People have been heard to say, write or tweet that they voted for Boris but feel they are getting Corbyn. While in practically all respects this is unfair, it points to the beginning of a disillusionment that could, if it is not corrected, begin to fester and grow. Even when supporters think the right decision has been reached – such as extricating China from its involvement in the UK’s 5G network – the government’s lengthy and grudging resistance means the Prime Minister gains little if any credit. Likewise, the failure to cancel HS2 – which appears to have few friends except construction companies, accountants, lawyers and the lobbyists who work for them – plays up to allegations the Tory Party is beholden to corporate interests rather than ordinary people who shall see no benefit from the project.

With all of these problems in the background, were the Prime Minister to now compromise on fully leaving the EU with or without a trade deal at the end of this year – be it by agreeing to an extension of the transition period or by making concessions that the deal becomes Brexit in name only – then his personal ratings and that of his government will fall through the floor.

The strong probability would then be that in next May’s elections Conservative voters would then sit on their hands, or worse, find another party to lend their support to. Last year Tory (and Labour) voters turned to the Brexit Party at the European elections, next May it could be George Galloway’s alliance4unity in the Holyrood elections and various independent candidates and groups in English local and mayoral elections. It needn’t be like that. A Johnson administration reinvigorated by taking bold and self-confident positions on iconic issues such as fishing could reassert itself and put Keir Starmer, Nicola Sturgeon and the Prime Minister’s critics on the back foot.

The discussions on how the UK’s fisheries will be managed were meant to have been concluded by the end of June, yet here we are with three sessions scheduled between the UK and EU this week. Why not make these the last of such discussions? What really is the purpose of them? The UK is asserting its sovereignty over its waters and has no need of further debate. The UK can already decide to publish for domestic consultation the methods and criteria by which our fisheries will be managed and what regulations and costs other foreign fishing fleets will have to meet if they are to gain access. It need not wait on this week’s negotiations before doing so. If there are benefits to be had for our own fishing boats gaining access in EU waters then of course a reciprocal trade off can be arranged and would justify talks – but let the EU come to us.

A by-product of such a bold move would be to create internal pressure within the EU for a deal with the UK to be struck. If the eight EU member states that fish in UK waters – Netherlands, Denmark, France, Belgium, Ireland, Germany, Sweden and Spain – lose their current access then they have to find fishing grounds from elsewhere. The greatest loser will be Ireland, for it shall not only lose access to UK waters but would find the other seven countries looking to make up their losses from Ireland’s waters. Meanwhile, we can open negotiations with Norway and the Faroes to replace the EU treaty that we are party to but which we fall away from at the end of December, trading access to our mackerel stocks in return for access to their cod stocks.

By showing leadership in this way Johnson’s government would, I believe, not only receive a welcome fillip in support but would also show the EU he means business in regard to the trade negotiations that should only be held separately. If the Prime Minister wants to keep winning he needs to set the news agenda, not simply respond to it.

Brian Monteith is editor of Brexit-watch.org