LIKE him or loathe him, Boris Johnson will tonight become one of the most important political figures of the past century when the House of Commons finally votes for his Brexit trade deal. Thus ends nearly half a century of British membership of the European Union, and the Brexit culture war which has bitterly divided the nation for the last four and a half years.

Mr Johnson is a most unlikely history man. Most political commentators, 
myself included, dismissed him as a charlatan, a buffoon, an intellectually lazy chancer who just got lucky when he was elected London Mayor in 2008. But no one has a lucky streak as long as his without having a touch of genuine political genius.

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Consider his record. Mr Johnson led the Leave campaign to victory in 2016 when the opinion polls said he would lose. He went on to become leader of the Conservative Party, by a landslide, and then renegotiated the EU Withdrawal Deal that everyone said could not be reopened. That helped him win an astonishing near-landslide victory in the 2019 General Election, plunging Labour to its worst defeat since 1935. Now finally, tonight, he will have the satisfaction of seeing the House of Commons vote for his Brexmas trade deal. The one all the smart people said was never going to happen.

Many in the commentariat suspected that Mr Johnson had decided to go for a no deal Brexit – or what he called an “Australian-style deal” on ruinous WTO terms. It was thought he was in the pocket of hardline Tory backbenchers. That he’d been outplayed by the clever lawyers of Brussels.

The ex-Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, mocked Mr Johnson’s talk of an “oven-ready deal” and said the EU would never allow Britain to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court. Now even Mr Farage agrees that “the war is over”.

You can call it a “thin” deal, or second best to EU membership and I would agree, never having wanted to leave Europe in the first place. Britain will undoubtedly lose by no longer being part of the “frictionless” European single market. But this is undoubtedly a comprehensive trade deal, guaranteeing tariff and quota-free access to the market. The fishing industry isn’t pleased. But there was always going to be a trade-off between EU access to British waters and UK access to European markets for fish.

The fact that it is really only the fishing industry crying “betrayal” tells you all you need to know. The vast majority of businesses, and the general public, heaved a massive sigh of relief on Christmas Eve, even in Scotland. I don’t think the opposition parties fully appreciated how their forecasting of no deal had affected the psychology of voters. People were genuinely afraid that shelves would empty, food prices would rocket, travel to Europe would end and the economy would tank. With their catastrophism, the opposition parties did Mr Johnson’s work for him.

Of course, there are many reasons for criticising this deal, not least its vagueness about the level playing field trade rules, but what it cannot be described as is a reckless no deal Brexit. Yet only a fortnight ago, Nicola Sturgeon accused the Prime Minister, not for the first time, of “actively planning a no deal Brexit” and said the prospects for a trade deal were “vanishingly thin”. Now, in an astonishing volte face, the SNP leader has ordered her MPs to vote against the deal in the Commons tonight.

This may make sense to diehard Remainers, but it will bamboozle many voters. They believed the opposition parties when they said they would move heaven and earth (and the Supreme Court) to prevent Britain leaving the EU without a trade deal. How can they possibly justify rejecting the only one on offer, and not a bad one either?

Only a year ago, the SNP, along with a majority of MPs in the Commons, voted for the Benn Act. This ordered the Prime Minister to do everything in his power to avoid a no deal Brexit, including delaying Article 50 and Brexit itself. The SNP’s Joanna Cherry took the PM to court to prevent no deal. The Supreme Court ruled that he was acting unlawfully in risking one by saying he would rather “die in a ditch”. Now Ms Sturgeon seems to have opted for the very ditch he vacated.

If there were any chance of an alternative deal, such as membership of the European Economic Area, then voting against the Brexmas Agreement might have made sense. But the opposition parties missed their chance of delivering a soft Brexit last year by failing to vote for one. There is no alternative deal on offer and clearly no time to negotiate one before the January 1 deadline.

The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, saw the way the Brexit wind was blowing and ordered his troops to back the deal, on the not-unreasonable grounds that this was what he had been asking for all along. He didn’t want to repeat Jeremy Corbyn’s mistakes. The SNP thinks it can safely vote against the deal because there is no chance of it being defeated. But political leaders can’t take the voters for fools. Mr Johnson will say it is not only defying the will of Brexit voters, and the will of Parliament, it is defying logic in voting for No Deal.

Very few prime ministers actually make history. Margaret Thatcher did, by destroying Labour and the trade unions; Tony Blair did by reinventing Labour again and winning three elections. But neither of them made as massive a dent in the British constitutional timeline as the politician universally known as “Boris”. No one is laughing at him any more.

Twitter will still call him a racist, unfairly, since he isn’t. Ms Sturgeon will continue to label the PM “sexist” . But by getting the SNP leader to vote against the only Brexit deal on offer he has made Ms Sturgeon look like a prize hypocrite. He may not be world king yet, but tonight Boris is king of the Commons.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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