Bold move towards compromise only way forward for Johnson
The most straightforward route out of the prime minister’s dilemma is to negotiate a withdrawal deal and win parliamentary support for it by October 19th
Boris Johnson visiting a school in southwest London: The prime minister focused on domestic issues during Tuesday’s cabinet meeting. Photograph: Toby Melville/PA Wire
The British prime minister Boris Johnson began Tuesday’s cabinet meeting with an update on Brexit, briefing ministers on his “constructive discussions” with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin. But most of the meeting focused on the government’s domestic agenda, particularly its plans to spend more money on policing, the National Health Service and education.
With parliament prorogued for the next five weeks, Johnson has an opportunity to return to the campaigning style he deployed during August and he was pictured at a primary school in London on Tuesday. But parliament’s decision to block him from leaving the EU without a deal on October 31st and to deny him an election before then has left the prime minister with a Brexit headache he cannot ignore.
Johnson and his ministers have been intentionally opaque about how he plans to deal with his legal obligation to seek a three-month delay to Brexit if he has not secured a withdrawal deal by October 19th. The government says it will not break the law but the prime minister continues to insist that he will not under any circumstances write a letter seeking an article 50 extension.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab suggested this week that the government could test the law and some at Westminster believe Johnson could resign rather than write the letter, triggering a political and constitutional crisis days before Britain is due to leave the EU. The most straightforward route out of the prime minister’s dilemma is to negotiate a withdrawal deal and win parliamentary support for it by October 19th.
DUP support would help to unlock the votes of Conservative Brexiteers for any deal but the prime minister will struggle to win major concessions from Brussels.
His rhetoric on Brexit has changed substantially since he took office promising that he would not talk to EU leaders until they agreed to abolish the backstop. His embrace of an all-Ireland regulatory regime for agrifoods last week was a major step which saw him accepting the principle of regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Since then, Johnson has made clear that he rejects further regulatory alignment on the island of Ireland and he appears to have reassured the DUP on that issue in Downing Street on Tuesday evening. DUP support would help to unlock the votes of Conservative Brexiteers for any deal but the prime minister will struggle to win major concessions from Brussels.
His political weakness and parliament’s move to block a no-deal Brexit could persuade EU governments that if Johnson is unable to make his bold move towards a compromise now, they would be wiser to wait until after an election in November before they make theirs.