‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,’ sang The Who frontman Roger Daltrey on the band’s seminal 1971 hit Won’t Get Fooled Again.
And if Boris Johnson’s critics are to believed, the PM’s proposals to “get Brexit done” and avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic perfectly echoes that song.
His plan to ditch the backstop by keeping Northern Ireland in the European single market for goods (while also leaving the customs union) amounted to little more than a “rehashed version” of Theresa May’s doomed withdrawal agreement, said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn yesterday.
And the proposal, which would also herald a return to some customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic, in addition to checks between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, has been dismissed as little more than window dressing in many quarters.
Johnson’s plan, described as a ‘reasonable compromise’ in his letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, builds on speculation around the possible creation of an ‘all-Ireland food zone’.
It’s been given a cautious welcome by the DUP, with some political commentators even speculating it may attract sufficient numbers to win a vote in parliament.
But Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar questioned Johnson’s claim it would allow the Irish border to remain open.
“I don’t fully understand how we can have Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a separate customs union and somehow avoid there being tariffs and checks and customs posts between North and South,” he said.
European parliament Brexit steering committee chair Guy Verhofstadt put it more bluntly, stating it would be “nearly impossible” to accept the plans as they stood.
Checks, regardless of whether they were physical or not, effectively “ripped up” a UK/EU joint report from December 2017 that promised no hard border and no associated checks and controls, added Aodhán Connolly, director at the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium.
Johnson’s “hugely disappointing” plan made clear he had “not listened to the needs of the Northern Ireland business community or households”, Connolly said, with the ensuing trade barriers “leading to complexity, delays, tariffs, VAT and cost rises that will make Northern Irish goods less competitive”.
His comments were echoed by FDF CEO Ian Wright, who, while “applauding the government’s attempt to find a replacement for the backstop”, warned food and drink businesses operating in Northern Ireland would pay – through new bureaucracy and costs – “for the government’s inability to agree a comprehensive exit deal”.
It was “a fallacy to suggest there would be a small number of physical checks on food travelling across the Irish border”, he added.
Meanwhile, giving the Northern Irish Assembly the power of a veto over the plans every four years “would introduce uncertainty to investment plans”, suggested Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association chairman Brian Irwin.
And that’s before we take into consideration the fact that the assembly hasn’t sat in more than two years, while the DUP’s erstwhile power-sharing partner Sinn Fein has dismissed the PM’s plans outright.
Johnson insists he can make this plan work, telling parliament his proposal made a “genuine attempt to bridge the chasm” in order to get a fresh Brexit deal with the EU.
But with just 28 days left until Brexit day and the need to gain approval from the Irish, the UK parliament, European leaders and even the European parliament, the odds are still very much stacked against the government.
He also assists in production of The Grocer’s annual Dairymen and Meat, Fish & Poultry supplements, writes about food commodities, politics and food regulation, and has appeared as a commentator on both radio and TV on the state of the UK food industry.
Prior to joining The Grocer in April 2014, Kevin wrote about retail financial services for a Financial Times business publication, and began his career as a journalist working for regional newspapers in North Wales.
Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevWhite77