There is a lot of confusion about Boris Johnson’s approach to Brexit. And that is deliberate because the candidate has yet to make a big call about the nature of the modifications he is seeking to the Brexit plan negotiated by Theresa May.
The ultra Brexiters among his supporters, the hard core of the European Research Group led by Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg, want him to ditch her Withdrawal Agreement completely – and replace that with a “GATT 24” temporary free trade arrangement for the years that would be necessary for the negotiation of a permanent new trade deal with the EU.
This they regard as true liberation from the EU.
Now confusingly Johnson yesterday – in a Talkradio interview – referred to this as his “Plan B”. I say confusingly because so many of his supporters think GATT 24 is his “Plan A” – and indeed insist it must be.
But if it isn’t, what is Johnson’s Plan A? Well, it is to modify May’s Withdrawal Agreement, largely to ditch or put a time limit on the Northern Ireland backstop – and then to move after 31st October into the transition arrangements agreed by May, while alternative arrangements to the backstop are sorted.
Now for the avoidance of doubt, this version of Brexit would probably lead Baker and a significant number of his Brexity allies to spontaneously combust. By contrast, the remainers Hancock, Green, Johnson minor and Buckland would feel justified in having detached themselves from so many other Tory remainers in their decision to be led by Johnson
So Johnson’s choice of Plan A or Plan B risks one wing of his coalition of supporters turning on him – which is why he is artfully obfuscating which way he’ll leap.
In real economic – rather than political – terms it is all probably irrelevant, since the EU’s leaders will recoil at both his “A” his “B”.
Which leaves him with “C” – a no-deal Brexit, in which possibly a hard border on the island of Ireland could be averted by invoking GATT provisions relevant to peace and security.
What Johnson probably cannot avert is a general election, since a blocking minority of his own MPs will always try to frustrate an exit from the EU which they fear will seriously hurt British security and prosperity.
But to be clear it is not obvious that Johnson’s rival Hunt can avert a no-deal Brexit either, although his no-deal destination may take a little longer to reach.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV news blog