The prime minister is about to launch himself on the most important and arduous challenge of his time in office, and arguably of his life.
In the course of just the next five days he will try to secure a Brexit deal from an EU deeply sceptical he is prepared to make the compromises they say they need, and with a British Parliament largely hostile to his vision of life outside the EU.
As I mentioned yesterday, he’ll announce the big headline of what he wants in his conference speech tomorrow.
A day or two afterwards, he’ll publish his alternative to that backstop, hated by Tory Brexiter MPs and Northern Ireland’s DUP, his detailed plan of how he would keep open the border on the island of Ireland without what he sees as the permanent and irrevocable subjugation of the UK or Northern Ireland to EU rules and laws.
And then on Friday and Saturday, he’ll embark on a frantic European tour, meeting EU negotiators and government heads, to sell his proposed deal.
The auguries are not spectacularly positive.
Johnson’s diplomatic sequencing has been to make allies with the Irish government, led by Leo Varadkar, as a first step, in the hope that Dublin would back his compromise and then help him bring round Brussels, Paris, Berlin and the rest of the EU.
But only last night Ireland’s deputy government head, Simon Coveney, the Tánaiste, rubbished one rumoured element of Johnson’s plan, namely “customs clearance centres” ten or twenty miles from the Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland – which RTE’s Tony Connelly had disclosed as a probable central element in Johnson’s plan.
A UK government source did not seem unduly concerned by the apparent Dublin hostility, saying there had been the “usual distorted leaking to sow confusion”.
But as I’ve mentioned many times, Johnson wants a number of substantial changes from the arrangements agreed with the EU by his predecessor Theresa May. Changes of underlying philosophy.
The most important would be the introduction of some “friction” in trade within the island of Ireland, plus the construction of limited infrastructure, away from the border, for customs processing, and also a time limit and exit mechanism on any of his proposals (transitional or permanent) that would see Northern Ireland continue to be under the sway of Brussels.
All of which means EU leaders face a series of difficult judgements. They are:
- 1) Would the integrity of their single market be protected, could they be sure rogue goods and food from Northern Ireland would not taint their market?
- 2) Would the increased friction in trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic endanger the fragile peace on the island of Ireland?
- 3) Does Johnson have the authority in parliament to secure agreement for a new deal from MPs, if EU leaders meet some of his demands?
And in a manifestation of the cakeism (or “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”) that is his hallmark, Johnson is also seeking help from EU leaders in getting MPs to approve a new Brexit deal, even before those EU leaders have decided whether to incinerate his offer.
Johnson is set to urge them to make a binding statement that any new deal offered is the definitive last change, such that if MPs reject it, there will be a no-deal Brexit on October 31 and no extension.
This is Johnson’s ruse to pre-empt and castrate the Benn Act, which forces him to ask for a three-month Brexit delay on October 19 if he has failed to negotiate a new Brexit deal by then.
And he desperately needs the EU to say that the October 31 deadline is real and immoveable – because otherwise he has no chance of persuading a sufficient number of Labour MPs, who would prefer any Brexit deal to a no-deal Brexit or a referendum, that they are in the last chance saloon and therefore have to back him.
So here is the thing: Johnson wants EU negotiators and leaders to rip up two years of work on a Brexit deal for a plan he’s concocted in two months, and he wants them to be so excited by and grateful for his inspirational solutions that they will do him the favour of embracing them and then standing should to shoulder with him to sell them to sceptical MPs.
No one can fault Johnson’s ambition. And even those closest to him know it probably won’t work.
But he has one under-estimated advantage over MPs who want to force him to ask the EU to delay Brexit again.
MPs who seek the delay cannot tell EU leaders what the delay would achieve, because as yet they have not coalesced around any plan – an election, a referendum, some practical alternative Brexit proposal – that would be certain to determine whether the UK is actually leaving the EU or not.
This uncertainty is as cancerous for the EU as it is for the UK.
Johnson’s Brexit on October 31, deal or not, has the merit of being some kind of ending (though it would also mark the start of fraught negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU – don’t get me started!).