With Boris Johnson currently refusing to meet with any EU leaders for Brexit talks unless they agree to abolish the ‘undemocratic’ backstop, speculation is rising that the UK is on course to leave the EU without a deal. However, should the new Prime Minister manage to silence his critics and win a concession from Brussels to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements, Johnson ought not expect all members of his party to celebrate.
In an interview with the Telegraph, arch-Brexiteer Marc Francois – one of 28 Tory MPs who refused to vote for May’s deal on any occasion – has said that even were the backstop to go from the withdrawal agreement, he and dozens of colleagues would still refuse to vote for it. Francois said that Johnson had assured members of the European Research Group ahead of his election that the withdrawal agreement was ‘dead’:
‘He was absolutely emphatic about it, so we took him at his word. I don’t think you could revive the withdrawal agreement realistically. Even if you took the backstop out, there are too many other things that are wrong with it.’
Now Johnson allies are split on what would make a Brexit deal acceptable but the majority view is that without the backstop, the withdrawal agreement would be on its way to being acceptable. There’s a sense that there is not time to draft a completely new agreement in the number of days left until October 31.
Francois’s comments – along with his close ally Steve Baker’s refusal to take a junior ministerial job in this government – serve as a reminder that even were Johnson to succeed on his backstop aim, he would face internal opposition passing that deal. It doesn’t help that since Johnson entered No. 10, members in the European Research Group have grown anxious. The arrival of Vote Leave’s Dom Cummings as a senior adviser has landed badly with some Tory eurosceptics as during the EU referendum Cummings was dismissive of some of these MPs.
Generally speaking, the European Research Group are still supportive of Johnson’s Brexit plans. There are members – such as current chair Jacob Rees-Mogg – who see the backstop as the central issue. While there is a concern that the ERG does not have a central role assisting the direction of the negotiations or the no deal preparations, many members of the group are happy to put their doubts aside so long as Johnson delivers Brexit on side. Where the group splits is in those who refused to vote for the withdrawal agreement even once. Both Johnson and Dominic Raab did. It follows that there are Brexiteer purists who hold them in suspicion. At present, however, the number is small. Baker and Francois will only cause Johnson a headache if they manage to get more MPs into their way of thinking – and if Johnson manages to extract a concession in the first place.