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What to do when your predecessors dislike you

As part of the process of Brexit – the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union – the country has had to grapple with a complicated topic. Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, residents of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have a right to move freely across the national boundary between them. This was fine when both countries were in the European Union, but with the U.K. now withdrawn, there’s a problem: goods can circumvent tariffs and customs rules by moving across the Ireland-Northern Ireland border. The Boris Johnson government tried initially to kick this problem down the road but then, this year, it decided the time to fix the problem is now.

The initial fix was to implement customs checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain but to give some freight carriers a kind of get-out-of-customs-checks-free card. Since certain items wouldn’t be subject to tariffs anyway, the government would trust that companies that hauled those items wouldn’t try to make a little scratch on the side hauling contraband items, too (actually, they’re probably right to trust, given that the costs of occasional smuggling would be far lower than the cost of en masse enforcement). Checks within a country are usually unpopular, though, because it makes the whole idea of “being in the same country” seem hollow. The idea of a check at this particular spot was even worse, since the Good Friday Agreement also obligates the United Kingdom to allow Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland if it chooses; putting Northern Ireland on the other side of a customs barrier to the rest of its country would be a sure way to push its citizens towards Irish union.

And so: the Internal Market Bill. The bill proposes to simply scrap the idea of any customs checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and to unilaterally decide, either on a case-by-case basis or on the whole, whether to enforce customs rules on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The bill violates the U.K.’s withdrawal agreement from the European Union and contravenes international law, but when stuck between international law or the possibility of losing territory, most governments will recognize – perhaps rightly – that the consequences for breaking international law are far lesser than the consequences of losing territory and citizens.

Still, the Internal Market Bill has been controversial, and all five living former prime ministers – Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and John Major – came out in opposition after it was introduced (of them only May remains in Parliament). The five accused the government of damaging the U.K.’s reputation by setting the standard that the country doesn’t care about international agreements and will violate them as it sees fit, which kind of discourages other countries from making agreements with the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Donald Trump is fighting for his second term as president. There are four living former presidents; only one is in Trump’s party compared to three former prime ministers in Johnson’s party. Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have all backed Joe Biden, which is to be expected. But former president George W. Bush won’t back Trump, who is in his party, and may vote for Biden (though won’t back him publicly). Hundreds of former Bush administration staff members and former Secretary of State Colin Powell have backed Biden, as has the widow of John McCain, the Republican nominee for president in 2008.

To be clear, Trump is in a worse spot, politically, than Johnson. If Johnson was in an election this year, its unlikely May, Cameron, and Major would line up to support his opponent. But both leaders are still struggling to unite their own political parties behind their respective agendas and, in both cases, it can be traced to their abrasive personalities and approach to governance.

And don’t tell anyone, but: they’re right.

Both Johnson and Trump have largely dismissed the notion that they need the support of party elders (Trump certainly never sought McCain’s approval). Instead, they’ve argued that looking to past leaders for advice is misguided, an odd stance for a couple of conservatives to take but then both of them are hardly conservatives – they’re populists, populists who have found more acclaim from the right than from the left, and so they don the mantle of conservatives – on Easter and Christmas to appease the parents.

Johnson faces opposition on the Internal Market Bill but in the end, he’ll get it passed. Trump’s re-election depends more now on how chaotic he can make the vote seem and then just holding out until he becomes the winner by default. Neither of them need the support of party elders, so who cares? This isn’t a new paradigm by any means, but it’s fascinating to watch it play out in London and in D.C. at the same time. And it’s interesting to ponder what it means for the relationship between Trump and Johnson, who have to strike a deal for the sake of the British economy knowing full well that neither feel particularly beholden to the deals they’ve made in the past or the opinions of the people around them.

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