Boris Johnson will lay out details of his final Brexit offer on Wednesday, setting up a high-stakes fortnight with a threat that if the EU27 fail to engage, he will press ahead with no deal.
In his speech to members of the Conservative party, the embattled prime minister will outline what he will call a “fair and reasonable compromise,” which Downing Street says has been drawn up after 70 hours of discussions with other EU member states.
And he will insist that if the EU27 fails to engage with his proposals, he will press ahead with a no-deal Brexit at the end of October.
But amid warnings in Brussels that an offer that resembles draft proposals leaked on Monday will be met with a cold reception, Johnson’s assertive stance will also infuriate the sponsors of the Benn Act – the backbench-led law that obliges the government to request and accept a delay to Brexit, if he has not negotiated a new deal, and had it passed by parliament, before 19 October.
He and his cabinet colleagues have repeatedly said they will comply with the law; but continue to insist a no-deal Brexit at the end of this month is the only alternative to a deal, hinting they believe there is a loophole in the legislation.
After weeks of refusing to reveal how they hope to replace the Irish backstop, which Johnson has repeatedly called “anti-democratic”, No 10 says it will present the EU27 with legal text, after Johnson gives his speech.
Downing Street are expecting the initial reaction of other EU member-states to be deeply sceptical; but insist that if there has been no serious engagement with the plans by the time of the crucial EU council on 17 October, the government would press fullsteam ahead with plans for a no-deal Brexit.
A senior No 10 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. 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.”
Even before the plans had been published, senior EU figures were pouring cold water on them, with officials and diplomats dismissing Downing Street’s “kamikaze” approach.
After reports on Monday night that the first formal offer would involve customs clearance sites five to 10 miles from the Irish border – – later denied by Johnson – one source said: “Perhaps they realise if it’s anything that looks like what was floated in this leak, it is going to go down like a bucket of sick.”
But Johnson will tell the party faithful in Manchester that in the UK, even remainers now want to “move on” – a finding from recent focus groups. “Voters are desperate for us to focus on their other priorities,” he will say.
Cabinet ministers in Manchester are resolutely bullish about the prospects of securing a deal, in the brief period remaining before the 17 October European council – but sketchy about the details.
One told the Guardian they feared any bid to circumvent the Benn Act would ultimately result in the supreme court forcing Johnson’s hand – but that by determinedly dubbing it the “surrender bill”, he had driven home the message that any delay would not be his fault.
However, Johnson will insist again on Wednesday that he will not budge from the Halloween deadline. “Let’s get Brexit done on 31 October so in 2020 our country can move on,” he will say.
The government has also opened up communications channels to Labour MPs in recent days, in the hope that some who fear the consequences of a second referendum could yet support a Brexit agreement.
Johnson has suggested all sides need to “jump together”, and in a series of interviews on Tuesday, pointed to what he called a “big move” from the UK, in accepting a single Irish zone for animal health. “That will logically imply some more checks down the Irish Sea. But we think that’s liveable with provided it’s done in the right way,” he said.
As well as outlining his plans for a Brexit deal, Johnson will draw up battle lines for the coming general election – including seeking to bracket Labour with the SNP, a move the Tories used successfully against Ed Miliband’s Labour party in 2015.
He will say: “Corbyn wants to turn the whole of 2020 – which should be a great year for this country – into the chaos and cacophony of two more referendums: a second referendum on Scottish independence, even though the people of Scotland were promised that the 2014 vote would be a once in a generation vote, and a second referendum on the EU, even though we were promised that the 2016 vote would be a once in a generation vote.
“Can you imagine another three years of this? That is the Corbyn agenda – stay in the EU beyond 31 October, paying a billion pounds a month for the privilege, followed by years of uncertainty for business and everyone else.”
The prime minister conceded in a series of broadcast interviews on Tuesday that his Brexit plan would involve customs checks on the island of Ireland – though it is unclear where they would be situated.
He told the BBC: “If the EU is going to insist on, on customs checks as we come out as it as it is, then we will have to accept that reality. And there will have to be a system, for customs checks away from the border. Now, we think those checks can be absolutely minimal and non intrusive and won’t involve new infrastructure.”
He also underlined the concession the UK has made in agreeing that Northern Ireland could follow EU rules in agriculture, as one element of a potential compromise deal.
The proposals are also expected to include mechanisms for securing the consent of Northern Ireland for any changes to regulatory arrangements.
The DUP, whose leader Arlene Foster has been attending the Conservative party conference in Manchester, has also been closely consulted.
Johnson’s Get Brexit Done slogan is emblazoned on every available surface at the party’s conference in Manchester, and on souvenir merchandise.
But he has also been keen to change the subject to domestic policy. There were some suggestions in Manchester that he could unveil a headline-grabbing tax cut on Wednesday to detract attention from the details of the backstop plan.