Will prime minister Johnson put lipstick on the pig?

Today’s Sunday Times reports that various EU countries are panicking so badly over Britain leaving the EU with no deal they are willing to offer a new one.

At its shallowest, this proves the point some of us have been making from the get-go: that the only way the EU would ever offer withdrawal terms in Britain’s interests would be if the UK credibly threatened to leave with no deal at all.

However, there is a far less rosy way to look at this reported development.

Boris Johnson has positioned himself as the leadership candidate who wouldn’t flinch from leaving with no deal. As readers of this blog will know, however, my own fear has always been that Johnson will not take Britain cleanly out of the EU but will dress up some kind of fig-leaf compromise as a much improved deal – which an exhausted parliament will accept.

Amplifying such anxiety, the Sunday Times also reports a division within Johnson’s team between those urging leaving with no deal and those urging pragmatic compromise. The suggestion is that Johnson is being pulled both ways but hasn’t made up his mind.

Cause for even greater concern is provided in a Mail on Sunday column by Dan Hodges. He writes:

“Allies also insist Boris has now obtained clarity on his preferred Brexit strategy. But it isn’t the full-throated, turbo-charged No Deal approach his Cabinet opponents fear and the ERG ultras long for.

“ ‘The reality is Boris is going to put some bright lipstick on May’s deal,’ said one MP. ‘He’s then going to tie delivery of Brexit to a huge regional investment package. And he’s going to say to Labour MPs and the ERG, ‘‘Back this or you lose the investment, you lose Brexit and you get Jeremy Corbyn.’ ” 

This has the horrible ring of truth to it.

Much has been made of Johnson repeatedly saying (in my view correctly) that if Brexit isn’t delivered the Tory party will be finished. But Theresa May said the same thing. The problem was that she really thought her withdrawal deal would indeed deliver Brexit, whereas in reality it would have delivered the UK to an EU it had technically left but to which it remained bound on terms even worse than membership.

Johnson may think that if he neutralises the Irish backstop he can serve up a version of May’s deal by pretending he is presenting totally new terms. He will have been emboldened in this belief by spineless anti-No Deal Brexiteers and newly pragmatic Remainers, both Labour and Tory, who are currently signalling that in their opposing states of unprincipled and incoherent desperation they would indeed now vote for terms they previously would have ruled out.

It is of course possible that the EU will finally come to its senses and offer the UK a deal that enables Britain to leave with no strings whatsoever. Yes, pigs might fly.

But assuming that doesn’t happen, then prime minister Johnson should do what I have been suggesting for weeks: declare the UK is leaving with no deal, and if parliament stops him he will fight a general election defending democracy and the sovereign right of the people to have its wishes respected, having made a pact with Nigel Farage who would be given a peerage and a post on the post-Brexit trade team and whose Brexit Party would be given a clear run in vulnerable Labour Brexiteer seats.

This would achieve three things: saving the Conservative party, leaving the EU and destroying Labour.

The alternative is putting lipstick on that pig — and as a result, destroying the Conservative party and opening the way for a nightmare minority or coalition government of parties that would stop the possibility of a revitalised, independent, flourishing Britain dead in its tracks.

The choice before Boris Johnson is not between deal and no deal. It is between reality and illusion – and the latter course means political catastrophe.

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