Boris Johnson is causing otherwise sensible commentators to throw necessary caution to the winds.
In the Telegraph a few days ago, Charles Moore wrote that Johnson has brought a “miraculous” change to the political weather. “Until Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, the governing classes saw Brexit as a nightmare from which they would quite soon awake… Now they watch it happening before their eyes, and they fear they cannot stop it.”
A few days previously in the same paper, Allistair Heath wrote:
“It is therefore absurd in the extreme to depict Johnson as Theresa May 2.0, as some deluded commentators have begun to. Such an “analysis” is entirely devoid of understanding.”
Erm, that must include me. Readers will know that I have been worried from the start that Johnson’s signals were ambiguous. Yes, he put no-deal squarely on the table, which was indeed welcome and did change the whole dynamic. But the assumption simply doesn’t follow that the weather has now turned from menacing dark clouds to radiant sunshine.
For Johnson has also talked up his optimism about securing a deal. And unless the EU decides to throw in the towel, which seems more than a little unlikely, that would mean agreeing to terms that are not in the UK’s interests.
In particular, as I wrote here I have been concerned by his exclusive focus on the Irish backstop as the obstacle to a deal.
For as three lawyers warned in this pamphlet the Political Declaration, which formed part of the terms agreed by Theresa May and which is legally enforceable, would also leave the UK tied to the EU and rulings by the European Court of Justice. And if the UK remained bound by EU law, any such “Brexit” deal would be a cynical sleight of hand that would leave the UK still devoid of sovereign power over its own governance and laws.
Those fears have been greatly exacerbated this morning. The Telegraph reports:
“Number 10 said the Prime Minister may only ask the EU to remove the controversial Northern Ireland backstop, which would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU if no other way was found to ensure the Northern Ireland border remained open after Brexit.
Mr Johnson has said the withdrawal agreement, negotiated by Theresa May, is dead, but the suggestion that it could be retained will anger Brexiteers. Asked whether the Prime Minister would accept the Withdrawal Agreement if the backstop was removed, a Downing Street spokeswoman said: “We have been clear that the changes we are seeking relate to the backstop.”
It came as the EU signalled that it will not budge on the Withdrawal Agreement but could be open to amending the Irish backstop. The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, will travel to Brussels today (Wed) to meet his European counterparts in a bid to kickstart substantive talks on a new deal.”
So it looks increasingly as if Johnson is using no-deal as a negotiating tactic merely to get rid of the backstop.
This reportedly will bring him into conflict with the ERG. But only, I fear, with some of them, as even Jacob Rees-Mogg – who is now a member of the government as Leader of the House – always stressed the backstop as his overriding concern with the May deal.
In any event, here’s another nightmare that now looms: even if the ERG were to hold firm against a tarted-up May deal, they may find they are already trapped. Here’s how.
Johnson has correctly observed that, if Brexit isn’t delivered, the Conservative party will be destroyed by a haemorrhage of support from both erstwhile Tory and Labour-supporting Brexit voters alike. That’s almost certainly true, and Nigel Farage is wielding this like an electoral sword of Damocles.
But Johnson’s Svengali, his principal adviser Dominic Cummings (who Farage has startlingly excoriated as a traitor within the cause) has said of the Remainers plotting to stop a no-deal Brexit that they cannot succeed because, even if a general election were called before the Brexit date of October 31, it would go ahead by default.
Well, if that’s true for the ultra-Remainers it’s equally true for the clean-break Brexiteers. And so that could mean that the UK would indeed leave the EU on October 31, just as Johnson has promised – minus the backstop but still lumbered with bits of the May deal that would once again make it Brexit-in-name-only-Remain-by-stealth.
But who knows. Maybe this is all feinting and shadow-boxing. Maybe Johnson really does intend to leave with no-deal, which is why as is being reported the Privy Council decided this morning to ask the Queen to agree to Parliament being prorogued (to avoid the possibility of Remainer MPs thwarting no-deal).
Maybe the EU will continue to believe that no-deal will never surmount its parliamentary obstacles and so as a result the EU will refuse to give more than token ground on the backstop.
Maybe indeed that’s why Johnson has made a point of publicly accusing Corbyn of undermining the UK’s negotiations with the EU. Maybe clean-break Brexiteers actually need the Remainer ultras to make a credible show of stopping no deal — in order to keep the EU intransigent on the backstop.
Or maybe there are unicorns over the rainbow.