John Major in 2018
John Major expressed frustration that so much political energy had been expended on discussing a trade deal when 80 per cent of the UK economy is services-based © Charlie Bibby/FT

Former UK prime minister John Major has broken months of silence on Brexit to criticise the course taken by Boris Johnson’s government and warn that any trade deal negotiated with the EU, ahead of Number 10’s artificial end-of-the-year deadline, would inevitably be “flimsy”.

“I think we will get a deal but I do think it will be a flimsy deal,” Sir John told the European Financial Forum, a Dublin conference co-hosted by the Financial Times. To have “restricted the timeframe” for talks was wholly unnecessary, he added, pointing to the seven years it had taken Canada to strike its EU deal, a framework the UK wants to use as the basic template for a more ambitious deal within 11 months.

Addressing a packed conference centre at Dublin Castle, Sir John spoke passionately about his role in laying the foundations for the Northern Ireland peace agreement more than 20 years ago. Former prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal plan would have imperilled that peace, he said, by reinstating customs checks, a flashpoint for the decades-long Troubles, and potentially triggering a new round of violence.

Sir John, a vocal critic of Brexit who has held his tongue since December’s general election, acknowledged that Mr Johnson’s withdrawal agreement — part one of Brexit negotiations ahead of the prospective trade deal — at least avoided that risk.

But he warned that the concession agreed by Mr Johnson of establishing a border in the Irish Sea would store up untold future problems, potentially putting the future of the Union at risk.

“It has actually put Northern Ireland in a different relationship with the customs union and EU than the rest of the UK. Quite how that will settle down is as yet unclear,” he said, describing the range of potential outcomes as “impenetrable”.

Sir John expressed frustration that so much political energy had been expended on discussing a trade deal when 80 per cent of the UK economy is services-based.

On financial services, he said he would prefer the UK to remain aligned to the EU, a strategy that the UK authorities have said they will not pursue. A leaked memo in recent days suggested the government’s opening gambit on the issue was to seek a “permanent equivalence” deal — an open-ended promise from Brussels that the City of London would be able to access EU27 markets as long as regulations remained broadly “equivalent”, though not necessarily identical.

“I’m sure the government will seek equivalence and will ask for it,” Sir John said. “The EU is likely to say to them: if you wish for equivalence, accept alignment.”

Sir John said those who voted for Brexit had clearly been motivated by a host of concerns — from sovereignty to a spurious belief, judging by one person who wrote to him, that social security payment delays were the fault of Brussels.

He suggested there was widespread naivety about the practical difficulty and disruption of leaving, with non-tariff barriers potentially more disruptive than, for example, a modest 4 per cent tariff on car exports. “Many people are still underestimating the sheer difficulties that there are going to be after 40 years of alignment and ease of trade . . . when suddenly there are physical and operational impediments to that trade,” he said.

But if securing a worthwhile EU trade deal would be hard, Sir John predicted it would be just as challenging to strike agreements with other partners around the world — especially given the relative might of the US and China, and their preference to divide and rule through bilateral negotiation in place of multilateral co-operation.

“[Brexit] is an entirely self-inflicted wound that those who favour Brexit believe will be eased by trade deals with countries outside Europe,” he concluded. “I am very dubious about that.”

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