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Indulging the PM on the Northern Ireland protocol is to hold her own role in contempt
Ireland was the scene of a Boris Johnson masterclass in deception. In the 2019 election, he fooled millions into believing his “oven-ready deal” would “Get Brexit Done!” and we need not worry about the warnings of John Major, Tony Blair and Theresa May of the threat to the Northern Ireland settlement. Johnson’s straight lie that his withdrawal agreement would not put a border in the Irish Sea – “over my dead body,” he cried and yet the border is there and Johnson still lives – fooled the supposedly hard-nosed Democratic Unionist party. Finally, he conned the European Union into believing he was a man of his word when he signed a treaty confirming Northern Ireland’s special status that he had no intention of honouring.
At every stage, the attorney general, Suella Braverman, has covered his back. She has disgraced herself, her office, her profession and her country.
The attorney general is one of many peculiarly British constitutional checks on arbitrary power Johnson has blown away. On the one hand, the AG is a politician. On the other, he or she must uphold the rule of law and act independently of government. Johnson realised that no one could stop him appointing a sycophant who would do as he pleased. Braverman was just the stooge he needed.
“She’s only there because she’s a Brexiter of the true faith,” said one legal figure who, like all my contacts from the intersection between law and government, spoke on condition of anonymity. Johnson “looked for malleable legal figures who would do his bidding and found Suella”, said a second. “I was at a Brexit meeting she hosted and it was staggering to realise she did not understand any of the problems,” a third added. “I suppose that’s why Johnson likes her.”
Last week, Braverman justified Johnson’s decision to ignore the majority of voters in Northern Ireland as he tried to regain the trust of the Democratic Unionist party politicians he had so spectacularly cheated by ripping up the international treaty he had so sincerely promised to honour. You did not need to be a lawyer to grasp the speciousness of her special pleading.
Braverman claimed that – “painfully” – it was necessary to cancel the deal because the EU had created “a trade barrier in the Irish Sea”. But it was Johnson who became prime minister by rejecting May’s plan to keep the whole of the UK close to the EU customs union and single market. Johnson proposed putting a border in the Irish Sea so the rest of the UK could have a hard Brexit. Johnson took the idea to the EU, won a general election on it, had his civil servants draw up a treaty that delivered it and signed it into international law.
Braverman said the EU implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol was “unreasonable and disproportionate”. I defy you to read the protocol and show me where the EU has broken the agreement Johnson wanted. She concluded by displaying a contempt for her audience, and understandably herself, by saying that “trade is being diverted”. Obviously, trade is being diverted. Northern Ireland is in the single market and customs union. Its businesses are doing well out of it. So well, indeed, that businesses in the rest of the UK may want to join them.
Hannah Arendt was not only describing dictatorships when she said: “Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”
Any hierarchical organisation under authoritarian leadership does the same. To understand how Braverman rose to an office that specifically demands the holder displays independent thought, her fanaticism and mediocrity must be balanced.
Johnson chose well in Braverman. If he thought she would take a stand on principle, he wouldn’t have given her the job
In 2020, I reported on the false account she gave of her life. She ingratiated herself with the readers of the ConservativeHome website by claiming that, when she started as a barrister in London: “I was the shy Tory in my chambers of ‘right-on’ human rights lawyers. Despite the social stigma, I was inspired by Conservative values of freedom from an interventionist state.”
But the chambers that she joined after leaving Cambridge University were anything but “right on”. She worked at 2-3 Gray’s Inn Square, which was filled with regular barristers fighting disputes about the licensing of pubs and betting shops, not human rights law. One of the supposed “right-on” lefties was a former Tory MP.
The political advantages of posing as a victim of a snotty liberal elite were obvious. But cynical careerism does not explain every move. Vanity can matter as much. Braverman had an ordinary career at the bar, which she tried to make sound grander than it was by claiming to have contributed to authoritative legal textbooks. On inspection they bore no trace of her name.
Her bravado suggests that at some level she may think that a shadowy liberal elite had stymied her rise in the law.
Johnson offered her the chance for vengeance when he made her the country’s foremost law officer. Now she could show all those sneering liberals who believed in airy-fairy concepts such as governments honouring their word abroad and telling the truth to their voters at home who was boss.
“A self-respecting attorney general would have resigned by now,” a former law officer told me. But Johnson chose well when he appointed Braverman. If he thought she would take a stand on principle, he would never have given her the job. Equally, if he doubted for a moment that she was not committed to attacking the EU, judicial review and the Human Rights Act, she would have remained an obscure backbencher.
Her willingness to collude with a breach of international law seems a small matter. Tearing up the agreement with the EU will threaten western unity when we should be standing together against Russia. The EU may respond by starting a trade war, which will thump an economy already suffering from the battering Brexit, inflation and Covid administered.
In Northern Ireland, the British government’s decision to take a nakedly sectarian stance in favour of a hardcore Protestant minority may threaten the fragile peace.
The collapse of our institutions is still worth noticing, however. For all its contradictions, the office of attorney general once demanded respect. Now it is no better than being consigliere for a small-time crook.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist