A no-deal Brexit on October 31 is looking more likely than ever. This is the judgment many are bound to be making after Boris Johnson’s appearance in The Sun newspaper’s hustings debate last night.
From the start of the Conservative leadership contest Mr Johnson has said the UK will leave the EU on October 31 “deal or no deal”. Since then, everyone has wondered what kind of compromise he might accept on the Irish backstop to get a pact passed by his self-imposed deadline.
Yet last night Mr Johnson sounded utterly uncompromising over what he would accept. Asked what kind of deal he would do on the Irish backstop, he said his policy would be “no to time limits or unilateral escape hatches or these kind of elaborate devices, glosses, codicils and so on which you could apply to the backstop”.
In short, Mr Johnson will accept no compromise at all. He wants the backstop axed but that’s something the EU will never accept. So we have deadlock. And it is no surprise that the pound has this morning fallen to a two-year low against the dollar.
To get a sense of how grim things appear, it’s worth looking at this Twitter thread by Charles Grant, head of the Centre for European Reform. He has been holding talks with EU officials and yesterday spelled out what the four routes to a revised Brexit deal could be.
The first would involve a new political declaration on the future UK-EU relationship — for example, spelling out that it will be a Canada-style free trade agreement. But as Mr Grant points out: “Canada means no single market or customs union, so would necessitate the Irish backstop.” But Mr Johnson is now firm that the backstop must go.
The second deal would involve the EU giving the UK assurances that it does not want the backstop to be permanent. “For example, the EU could agree to a timetable for examining whether parts of the backstop needed to stay,” says Mr Grant. Again, Mr Johnson now says no to this.
The third possibility would be for the EU to offer Britain a much longer “standstill transition” (as I discussed here and Martin Sandbu here). Mr Johnson could claim the backstop would not be needed and the UK would have, say, five years to negotiate a free trade agreement and fix the Irish border issues. But many hard Tory Brexiters would deem this “vassalage”.
The fourth idea would be for the EU to accept a Northern Ireland-only backstop as the EU initially proposed. Britain would be free to do trade deals with others. But there would then be customs controls across the Irish Sea that would be anathema to the Democratic Unionist party. So this isn’t a runner either.
With the route to an orderly exit looking impossible, it is little wonder that efforts by backbench Conservatives to block no deal in parliament are gaining momentum. But whether these MPs have the parliamentary mechanism to stop Mr Johnson remains an open question.
According to one of Mr Johnson’s close advisers, he is “definitely” open to the idea of a no-deal Brexit. The say he believes that a series of last-minute mini deals can be signed with the EU to mitigate the economic effects.
But it is still hard to believe Mr Johnson will go down this road. He will be taking an immense gamble with his premiership just three months in. There is no good reason why the EU will help him out. Instead, there is a very real risk that the disruption would sweep him out of office.
If he is rational, Mr Johnson will have to choose one of the four options listed above. Accepting option three, a very lengthy standstill transition, and forcing it down the Tory hardliners’ throats, may be the only choice he has.
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