Boris Johnson will on Wednesday make a “final offer” to Brussels to end the Brexit deadlock, insisting in a speech to the Conservative party conference that his plan is a “reasonable compromise” and offers the last chance to avoid a chaotic no-deal exit.
The prime minister’s allies claim that the proposal, to be sent to Brussels on Wednesday afternoon, has “evolved significantly” in the past 24 hours and if the EU rejects it, the UK will break off talks and start preparing for a no-deal exit.
On Tuesday night, the prospects for a deal suffered a serious blow when British officials blamed Dublin for leaking the plan. “They are trying to create a toxic atmosphere,” said one. Irish officials denied that the leak had originated from Dublin.
Britain is now prepared to extend EU regulation to industrial goods in Northern Ireland to ease trade flows across the border with the Republic, on top of Mr Johnson’s existing plan to create a single all-Ireland zone for animal and food health checks.
However, that proposal does nothing to address the crucial issue of customs controls, and Mr Johnson has put himself on a collision course with the EU by insisting that Northern Ireland must leave the bloc’s customs union in any deal.
One EU diplomat close to the negotiations said: “There is a significant gap between what Johnson is saying and what we can accept. But the proposals won’t be shot down in flames. There are 10 days to try to close the gap.”
In details leaked to the Daily Telegraph, the “mainland” of Great Britain would aim to secure a free-trade deal with the EU by 2021. However, Northern Ireland would stay aligned with EU rules for agrifoods and industrial goods for four years.
After four years, a reconvened Stormont assembly would decide whether to continue to remain aligned with EU rules — to reduce friction at the Irish border — or comply with rules for Great Britain to reduce the need for checks on the Irish Sea.
Under this “four years, two borders” plan, goods exported from Northern Ireland would face customs checks when entering the Republic of Ireland, while goods entering the region from Great Britain would face checks to make sure they met EU standards.
Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair and an architect of the Good Friday peace agreement, told the BBC’s Newsnight: “This looks like something put forward by somebody who is not serious about reaching a deal.”
Mr Johnson’s team admits that any deal will rely on the support of the Irish government. The fact that Number 10 believes Dublin has provocatively leaked the plan is an ominous sign that the proposal will not fly.
Mr Johnson is determined to scrap the so-called Irish backstop, the guarantee against a physical border in Ireland which would have kept the whole UK in a customs union until a new trade deal had been agreed.
Early indications are that Mr Johnson’s proposals — in which he recycles familiar British claims that technology, surveillance and trusted trader schemes can be used to remove border friction — will receive an icy reception in Brussels as well as in Dublin.
In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, the prime minister insisted that there would be no physical border with Ireland. “We think those checks can be absolutely minimal and non-intrusive and won’t involve new infrastructure,” he said.
Mr Johnson will tell his party that the public are beginning to feel they are being treated as “fools” by politicians determined to thwart Brexit. “If they turn out to be right in that suspicion, then I believe there will be grave consequences for trust in democracy,” he will say.
A senior Downing Street official said: “The government is either going to be negotiating a new deal or working on no deal — nobody will work on delay. We will keep fighting to respect the biggest democratic vote in British history.”
Mr Johnson insists that he will not comply with the law that would force him to seek a delay to Brexit if a deal is not possible.
“The EU is obliged by EU law only to negotiate with member state governments, they cannot negotiate with parliament, and this government will not negotiate delay,” the official said.
The EU argues that Britain’s “alternative arrangements” for managing the customs border are based on non-existent or untried technology. It does not want to give Britain an exit deal until a credible guarantee against a hard border in Ireland is in place.
Meanwhile, Mark Francois, deputy chair of the hardline European Research Group of Tory MPs, suggested that he could back a deal that “genuinely delivers Brexit”. He said: “We’re leaning in to any new deal the prime minister brings back — we want to engage.”
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne