There will be no last-minute deal. The talks between the UK and the EU have effectively broken down. It isn’t that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, it’s that there’s no tunnel at all. The blame game is now far more advanced than the negotiations. The diplomatic crockery has been smashed even before Boris Johnson and the leaders of the EU27 have arrived in Brussels for this month’s European Council. The question now is whether the talks can ever be resuscitated at a later date — or if we are in a world where the only options are no Brexit or no deal.
The assumption had long been that as the 31 October deadline neared, one side or the other would blink. That the pressure would produce a compromise. Instead, all sides are raising the stakes and hardening their stances. No. 10 is blaming Irish and EU intransigence for the failure of the talks; Donald Tusk is using Twitter to make jabs at the British Prime Minister. A deal seems to be a lost cause.
One of the biggest problems is that 31 October, the departure date that became the trademark of the Johnson leadership campaign, is not a deadline any more. Parliament has seen to that. No. 10’s plan to make the EU and Dublin choose between ‘a new deal and no deal’ has been scuppered by the Benn Act. There’s no pressure on the other side to compromise to avoid no deal and the consequent inevitable hardening of the Irish border.
What is frustrating No. 10 is a sense that the other side of the table is taking for granted the concessions it is offering: mainly a UK/Northern Ireland regulatory border and effectively leaving Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods and agriculture. (The EU and the Irish would counter that Johnson’s government has already resiled from commitments made by the May government on Northern Ireland.) No. 10 fears that the Irish approach is, essentially, to wait and see whether Johnson will win a majority — and if he does, only then to contemplate his proposal.
When Leo Varadkar met Johnson in Dublin last month, the Prime Minister was left with the distinct impression that if he was prepared to put a regulatory border in the Irish Sea then Dublin would be prepared to think creatively about other matters. No. 10 offered up this concession, but to no avail. Even those in Downing Street who are inclined to a more diplomatic approach than the Vote Leave veterans are irritated that the Irish have failed to engage with the UK proposal. They reckon that they have moved a long way — and,unexpectedly, brought the DUP with them — and that Dublin and the EU just aren’t recognising that. They believe that because their solution brings with it Unionist consent, it is built to last in a way that the backstop wasn’t; polls suggest that around 80 per cent of Unionists are uncomfortable with the backstop. Yet still the EU says that the proposal doesn’t pass muster.
The Benn Act sends Johnson naked into the conference chamber. If there’s no deal by 19 October, then the government must ask the EU for an extension. However much Downing Street huffs and puffs about this, there isn’t a way round this law. Even if No. 10 finds a loophole, the courts are bound to close it. As for the hopes that another EU state will veto the extension request: that ain’t going to happen. The consequences of no deal would be dire for Ireland; and no EU member state is going to inflict that kind of damage on another. The solidarity of the EU27 that London has failed to crack in three years isn’t about to break now.
The EU is about to take back control, deciding the conditions on which it will grant the UK an extension and, crucially, the length of it. It will make the ticking clock work in its favour.
The most dramatic option would be to offer a short extension to enable both sides to get ready for no deal. The message to MPs would be: the only way to stop no deal is to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit altogether. This scenario isunlikely. But EU exasperation and a desire to avoid having the UK inside the EU and being as disruptive as possible means that it is becoming an option.
This parliament does have an anti-no-deal majority, but it’s a bit of a leap to imagine that MPs would simply annul the referendum result. Simply overturning the referendum would invite a democratic reckoning that would reshape British politics for generations. When an election came, the Tories — and a turbocharged Brexit party — would simply run on a platform of honouring the 2016 result.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is the prospect of an extension lengthy enough to allow the UK to have a second referendum. The EU has always been clear that it would give Britain enough time to repent via this kind of ‘democratic event’. Those close to Johnson are becoming more concerned about the prospect of ‘a government of national unity’ (a misnomer if ever there was one) attempting to pilot through a second referendum. But a so-called government of national unity would require a new prime minister and there’s no consensus among the opposition parties over who that caretaker should be, and what they’d do. Last weekend we had John McDonnell saying Labour could never accept anyone other than Jeremy Corbyn as PM, and the Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, accusing Labour of preferring no deal to contemplating any alternative.
The most likely option is still that the EU will offer an extension that allows time for a general election, but not much more. This way the EU would maintain control of the process: it would be able to quickly demand answers from any new UK government.
There is a theory that if Johnson is forced to eat his words over Brexit on 31 October — being unable to deliver on his famous ‘do or die’ promise — he’ll lose credibility and will stand a much diminished chance of winning the next election; this is why the opposition parties were so determined to deny him the 15 October poll he wanted. But the Tories are now increasingly confident that they can survive an extension. A No. 10 source points to a recent YouGov survey which shows that 78 per cent of those currently intending to vote for the Brexit party — the most hardcore of Leavers — say it wouldn’t be Johnson’s fault ‘at all’ if the UK doesn’t leave on 31 October. Cabinet ministers who once thought it would be catastrophic if this deadline was missed are now much more relaxed.
The plan, according to a No. 10 source, is that he’ll fight this election on a platform of ‘no more delays, get Brexit done immediately’. Having missed the 31 October deadline, he will have to prove that he wants to get out as quickly as possible. This strategy will be essential for keeping together the Leave-supporting coalition he is trying to assemble and to enable him to carry on squeezing the Brexit party vote; the Tory aim is to get it down to around 6 to 8 per cent, because they think that at that level it starts to hurt Labour more than them. Johnson’s message will not be the one of ‘strengthen my hand to get a deal’, which he would have run on if the election was happening before 31 October.
At cabinet on Tuesday, Nicky Morgan — the Culture Secretary and leading light of the One Nation group of Tory MPs — warned that running on a no-deal platform would be ‘very tricky’ for a slew of colleagues. Her point was not made so directly that the PM had to respond to it. But a ‘get Brexit done immediately’ rallying cry falls short of a full-on ‘no deal’ promise. Johnson could indicate that the EU should accept his offer if it wants to avoid no deal. This would make it easier for him to hold his MPs together and yet still sound tough enough for him to carry on reuniting the Leave vote.
Such an election message would not leave him much room for compromise. For the first time, there could potentially be a parliamentary majority for no deal — which would embolden many Brexiteer Tories. They would argue that the EU had had its chance, and, with five years to go until the next election, they could make a clean break, absorb the economic disruption and begin re-orientating the UK economy.
I understand that had the EU engaged seriously with Johnson’s proposal, he was prepared to make another concession: that the all-Ireland regulatory zone would start automatically — and need only later be approved by Stormont. (The EU disliked the idea that the Northern Ireland assembly would have a veto over any arrangement.) No. 10 thought that this would have put pressure on Sinn Fein to get theNorthern Ireland executive and the assembly up and running again. Without a functioning executive and assembly, the all-Ireland arrangements would lapse at the end of the four-year review period.
Johnson had thought that his shared custody offer, leaving Northern Ireland in the EU’s regulatory zone, would be enough to get things moving. Instead, the EU has in effect said that it also wants Northern Ireland in its customs zone — unless and until there’s a technological solution that it approves of — and it won’t settle for anything less. This is what the EU means when it says that there must be no checks on the island of Ireland. To the Tories, keeping the UK’s customs territory intact is fundamental.
If the Tories do end up forming the next government, then there may well be one last opportunity to try for a deal. But even if the blessed sponge of amnesia wipes clean both sides’ memories of the past few days, there are still fundamental differences. Unless something changes on customs, there is no deal to be done, now or later.
In any election, the Tories will have one particular disadvantage: anything other than an outright majority will not be enough for them. If joining forces with the DUP isn’t enough to get them over the line, it is hard to see what other potential partners they might have. Anything other than a Tory government will almost certainly lead to a second referendum, since that is what the other parties can agree on. A whole new world of arguments would then await: what Leave option should be on the ballot paper? Should 16-year-olds have the vote? It stretches credulity to think that a Remain victory would put the whole issue to bed.
The Leave side would not have won the referendum without Johnson. But now, if Brexit is to happen, he must win a general election too. Without his own majority, he won’t be able to get Brexit done — with or without a deal.
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