David Frost, the UK’s Brexit Minister, used a speech last week to threaten to suspend parts of his own Brexit deal with the EU unless changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol could be agreed.
The speech has ratcheted up tensions on a debate that had largely dropped off the agenda since the outset of the pandemic, apart from that brief moment on Christmas Eve when we, you know, agreed the Brexit deal.
If we put aside the arguments for or against negotiating new Brexit arrangements, there is a big political risk to the government in reopening this old wound.
It is undeniably true that Johnson won the 2019 election off the back of Brexit. In polling by Opinium both before and during the campaign, the public consistently told us it was one of the top issues facing the country.
Johnson was able to build his winning coalition by developing two arguments on the issue which has defined British politics for the better part of the last decade.
Firstly, he used the months preceding the election to make it clear to hardened Leave voters that he was best placed to achieve a “proper Brexit” that honoured the results of the referendum.
He did this by, among many other things, making it perfectly clear that he was happy to leave the EU without a deal by going to war with Parliament, not to mention the courts, over the prorogation.
However, getting these hardened Leave voters onside wouldn’t have been enough to achieve such a substantial majority. By the time of the last election the majority of voters thought Brexit was a mistake and told pollsters they would have voted Remain if they could vote again. A notable minority of those who voted Leave also took a position on Brexit that was substantially softer than the Prime Minister’s.
But after months of bickering, chaos, and a constitutional crisis, these middle ground Brexit voters were willing to compromise and support a man who they believed could make the issue go away.
This is why the government’s main slogan during the election campaign wasn’t “isn’t our deal great” but that it was an “oven ready deal” that would “get Brexit done”.
Ultimately, this meant that the government didn’t only win the support of the vast majority of Leave voters, but also managed to hold onto the support of around one in five Remain voters, who really just wanted to stop hearing about it.
And herein lies the political risk – if the government was elected because they could get Brexit done quickly, they can’t end up in a situation where Brexit looks like it still isn’t done.
It also comes at a time when some Leave voters are questioning the benefits of Brexit. Over half of Leave voters think Brexit is going badly, and 43 per cent at least party blame Brexit for the recent HGV shortages.
Of course, a David Frost speech alone isn’t enough alone to start moving the dial.
It could be that the government quickly finds a new compromise with the EU and the issue quickly drops back off the agenda.
But the Conservatives certainly have nothing to gain from the B word once again dominating the news – and potentially have a lot to lose.