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No point in EU negotiations with lame duck Johnson

All Brussels will see in the autumn is an untested prime minister, an election in the offing and an unholy mess. It will wait and see

If there was ever any point in the EU negotiating with Boris Johnson’s government, there is certainly no point now.

Replacing the British prime minister could be a messy and protracted business, creating more than enough headaches before even considering how his possible successors might approach the Northern Ireland protocol.

First Johnson has to resign, or be forced to resign, as he has made it clear he will have to be carried out of the building. Then he has to be left in the building during the subsequent Conservative leadership contest, which would take around two months. There is no such thing as a caretaker prime minister in the UK. The incumbent remains in office with all their powers until a successor is appointed. The queen could appoint an interim but that would require the co-operation of Johnson and the entire Conservative Party.

Assuming the leadership contest does not tear the Tories apart, there could be a snap general election, taking another two months. Alternatively, as happened when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair in 2007, there could be months of speculation that there could or should be an election. This destroyed Brown’s authority from the outset.

The Tories could lose the election, or win and still tear themselves apart, perhaps at a more leisurely pace. Johnson’s record proves a new leader with a fresh mandate does not necessarily heal Brexit divisions. It also proves he could brazen this week out and hang on, or at least spend months in the attempt.

It is less than four months until the end of October, when Stormont’s caretaker period runs out and devolution in Northern Ireland collapses.

It is two weeks until Westminster’s summer recess, when the bill to disapply the protocol was meant to be through the Commons, to coax the DUP back into Stormont.

That carefully plotted timetable, already slipping, is now shot.

Negotiating strategy

The DUP wants to return to Stormont and had been indicating it might restore the assembly, if not the executive, in early September.

In theory, that move could be less risky for the unionist party without the unreliable Johnson. Every candidate to replace him will be hostile to the protocol and broadly supportive of the bill, or the negotiating strategy behind it.

Former health and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt was Johnson’s opponent in the last leadership contest in 2019. His name has recently resurfaced, not so much as a realistic challenger but as a notional moderate candidate. Even Hunt has defended Johnson’s protocol position since the bill was announced. This is as wet on the sea border as the Tories are going to get.

A new prime minister could be in office by the end of the summer. The DUP could seek assurances on the bill or the protocol and tell unionist voters it had more dependable promises from Downing Street.

But even in this optimistic scenario for Stormont, the UK would only be talking to itself. The bill strategy depends on pressurising the EU into negotiations, producing results quickly enough to let the DUP restore the executive by October.

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All Brussels will see in the autumn is an untested prime minister, an election in the offing and an unholy mess. It will wait and see.

The most easily moved obstacle in the months ahead is the October 28 deadline for devolution’s collapse, after which an assembly election must be called within 12 weeks. The UK government could extend Stormont’s caretaker period, or more probably defer an election and put devolution on pause. Immediate crisis would be replaced with indefinite limbo.

Wait and see is not a cost-free approach for Brussels, especially with no end in sight.

Over-engineered

Chaos in London may disrupt the bill strategy but it also means little or no progress on implementing the protocol to the EU’s requirements. Unilateral grace periods will stretch on, customs posts will not be built and data will not be shared. Officially, the EU is concerned about risk to the single market. Unofficially, it is concerned a lengthy period without sea border checks will show the risk is trivial and the protocol is over-engineered. In a stand-off, time can work to the UK’s advantage.

Brussels has projected so much of its Brexit frustrations on to Johnson that it has according him a pantomime-villain status, with the DUP as a foolish sidekick bound to be betrayed.

This has obscured the genuine anger and shame felt across British politics at a deal running the EU’s border down the middle of the country – a feeling the Irish might empathise with, amid their Schadenfreude.

Johnson briefly and duplicitously accepted this in full – proposed the concept, in fact – but no other British prime minister will.

If the clown is going to fall, the absurdity of the protocol could at last be taken seriously.