Bid for Brexit glory

This really is crunch time for Boris Johnson - striking a deal with the DUP and submitting his ‘two borders’ plan to the EU. But, asks Eddie Ford, can he survive the storm?

As proved many times, predicting what will happen next in the Brexit saga is a bit of a fool’s errand. But this week was crunch time for Boris Johnson and his ambition to go down in history as the man who finally delivered Brexit against the odds - or perhaps, more appropriately, given that the prime minister is a biographer of Winston Churchill, we are seeing the ‘end of the beginning’, as Brexit is set to run and run, whatever happens over the next few weeks.

Hence after addressing the Tory Party conference in Manchester on October 2, where he set out some of the details of his “final” negotiating offer to the European Union in pursuit of a “fair and reasonable” Brexit compromise, Johnson submitted new proposals to Brussels intending to form the legal text of a new deal - ahead of the crucial make-or-break October 17 summit. The day before he told a fringe meeting - significantly hosted by the Democratic Unionist Party - that he hoped to clinch a deal with the EU over the course of “the next few days”. He is playing a very high-stakes game.

Indeed, we should know very soon if the prime minister is really prepared to “die in a ditch” rather than write a letter to the EU asking, or begging, for an extension to article 50, as required by the recently passed Benn Act - ie, the ‘surrender act’. Myself, I find it hard to imagine him ever making such a request. Not for nothing is the conference slogan, “Get Brexit done”, No10 declaring that, if the EU did not engage with the UK’s “fair” offer, there would be no further negotiations until after it had left on October 31. There will be no delay or extension. Nor would the EU, the prime minister has said, want a “mutinous and truculent” Britain messing things up for the bloc.

On one level, Boris Johnson is launching his bid for glory at a very inauspicious time, with allegations swirling around of “misconduct in public office” and “sexual misbehaviour” towards women. Making a big splash over the tabloid press, the prime minister has been formally referred by the Greater London Authority to the Independent Office for Police Conduct to assess whether he used his position as London mayor to “benefit and reward” a US tech entrepreneur, Jennifer Arcuri - apparently he regularly went round to her London flat for “IT training”.

It is claimed that Arcuri received hundreds of thousands of pounds in various government grants and awards under programmes to “encourage” foreign entrepreneurs to build businesses in Britain; and that she was given preferential treatment when it came to joining overseas trade missions led by Johnson - her business did not seem to meet the eligibility criteria, but the then mayor intervened to overturn the objections. Johnson has also been accused of groping two women at a 1999 booze-fuelled lunch organised by the Spectator magazine, which he then edited. The prime minister claims to have no recollection of the incident, but that did not prevent Downing Street insiders privately describing the accusation as “bollocks” and “nonsense”.

But you can almost bet money that these stories will get lost in the mad helter-skelter of Brexit politicking, just as everybody quickly forgot the “loud altercation” at the London flat Boris Johnson shared with his partner. The primal force of Brexit sweeps everything aside. If anything, this could actually be a good time for Johnson to make a bold move, as the cross-party meetings on how to prevent a no-deal Brexit seem to be getting nowhere. The Liberal Democrats and the 21 liberal Tories MPs booted out of the party for supporting the Benn Act, unsurprisingly, cannot stomach the thought of Jeremy Corbyn leading an interim or caretaker government - wanting instead someone like Margaret Beckett or Ken Clarke. More practically, the loud-mouthed and slightly obnoxious Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, argues that Corbyn can never command a majority in the Commons - which is obviously true. Therefore he should do the honourable thing and make way for a less contentious candidate.

But Labour is not budging, John MacDonnell insisted at the beginning of the week that the “the rules are the rules” - tell that to Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings - and Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Her Majesty’s official opposition should get first dibs at forming a short-lived minority Labour government, backed by the Scottish National Party, with the intention of extending article 50 and maybe even holding another referendum before calling a general election. A Labour source dismissed those who want a national government as “playing fantasy football”, because “not only would no such thing ever be agreed”, but “the idea that such a government could exist for six months with no mandate is pure nonsense”. Deadlock, in other words.

The deal

Anyway, back to Boris Johnson’s new Brexit plan - the finer details are just starting to emerge and are being studied right now by EU officials. The DUP has signalled that it is content with the prime minister’s deal, or at least can live with it for now, even though it will see Northern Ireland “in a different relationship with the EU to the rest of the UK” and include customs checks on the island of Ireland - the Northern Ireland Assembly, whenever it is reconvened, will be given powers to shape its future with the bloc.

In some respects, Johnson’s proposals are similar to Theresa May’s hated and overwhelmingly rejected deal - but with the backstop ripped out and replaced by his own scheme, described as “two borders for four years”. Under the plan, the entire UK would leave the EU on October 31, with the original transition period staying in place until December 31 2020. When it comes to ‘liberation day’ on January 1 2021, the UK would leave all the institutions and structures of the EU - including the customs union and judicial structures, such as the European Court of Justice, security and defence arrangements, agreements on data sharing, and so on. Northern Ireland would also leave the customs union at the same time, but would remain aligned with EU regulations and presumably freedom of movement within the island of Ireland for another four years until 2025. Yes, that would effectively mean a border down the Irish Sea - goods coming into Northern Ireland would have to be checked to see if they complied with EU standards, which would apply across the island.

Of course, this is an idea previously thought to be an unacceptable threat to the “constitutional integrity” of the UK - which “no prime minister could ever agree to”, as Theresa May put it, and opposed at the time by the DUP. But the latter now says that a “pragmatic compromise” is necessary to help get a deal with the EU over the line, and that Dublin and Brussels should now follow suit. Obviously, if Northern Ireland maintains EU regulations on food and manufactured goods and freedom of movement, there would be no need for any checks on the Irish border - explaining why Boris Johnson is attracted to the idea.

In reality, Johnson is advocating his own version of the backstop - but a time-limited one. As we know, the EU - especially the Irish government - has always said it would not consent to such a plan. But the DUP in particular believes it will work if after 2025 new structures are put in place to give Stormont members oversight of how Northern Ireland moves from there, with the option of remaining aligned to EU regulations a possibility - the so-called ‘Stormont lock’. As part of the new deal, they see the restoration of the British-Irish ministerial council set up under the Good Friday agreement as vital, giving representatives from the Stormont assembly and the Irish parliament a say on any changes of regulations on food and manufactured goods post-2025.

Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s senior political editor, was probably right when she said the decision in the next few days would not be about whether there is a deal or not, but whether “the two sides reckon it’s worth sitting down to talk properly at all”. So far, the omens do not look good, though nothing is ever certain with Brexit. The government and opposition parties in Ireland described the proposals as “unworkable”, “unacceptable” and “illegal” under British domestic law, which bans any new infrastructure on the Irish border that did not exist before Brexit day. Ireland’s European affairs minister, Helen McEntee, raised doubts about Johnson being “sincere” in wanting a deal - a more than reasonable suspicion.

EU sources have said that the proposal, as outlined so far, did not meet the objectives of the Irish backstop, and threatened both the integrity of the single market and continued peace on Northern Ireland - “If this is the final offer, then there is not a deal to be had”. Another senior EU diplomat said the two negotiating sides were in fundamental disagreement, and that there was insufficient time to bridge the gap, with the Brexit deadline only weeks away - “we want to avoid the border and checks and controls”, which does not appear to be the position of the British government. In any case, will his proposals be accepted by a majority of MPs? Why bother making serous concessions if they will not get approved by the British parliament?

As it happens, Johnson’s actual speech to conference was more conciliatory than billed - the absence of a “take it or leave it” demand giving the EU some sliver of hope that he might rethink the Irish plan. But if the EU ends up rejecting Boris Johnson’s deal, which still seems more than likely, it is extremely doubtful that the prime minister will be disappointed. Rather, he is manoeuvring in order to give himself an opportunity to shift the blame to someone else - unreasonable Brussels bureaucrats being the perfect target.