Little scope for agreement on backstop by October
Boris Johnson’s deal or no-deal intentions remain uncertain
The evidence that British prime minister Boris Johnson wants to find a Brexit deal “comes in the increased engagement with the EU”. Photograph: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images
While the volume of UK government announcements is complicating serious analysis, probably deliberately on the part of its strategists, some clarity is emerging. This week prime minister Boris Johnson demonstrated further that the UK leaving the European Union at the end of October is do or die for his administration.
Proroguing parliament and holding a queen’s speech means that there will be five whole weeks when MPs cannot debate Brexit, which we can safely say was the main reason for the decision. After a short sitting, parliament will either be suspended or discussing proposed new measures until the week commencing October 21st.
Behind this clarity though lies the mystery as to whether Johnson is really seeking a Brexit deal, or simply running the clock down to stop MPs blocking a no-deal outcome. There is evidence in both directions, possible splits within his administration, and some likelihood the matter hasn’t been fully decided.
They hope the EU will concede that the backstop is in fact untenable and unnecessary, and agree to move discussions to the future trade agreement
We can deduce at least that this makes the fate of the Border a distinctly second-order matter for the UK government, something believed manageable, deal or none. Winning an election, before or after Brexit, is the most important consideration, leaving the EU at the end of October is next. The detail is then to be coloured in around these aims. In this sense there is a clear break from Theresa May, who seems to have decided some way into negotiations that a no-deal Brexit created unacceptable risks to the future of the UK and peace in Northern Ireland.
The evidence that Johnson wants to find a deal comes in the increased engagement with the EU. Friday’s suggestion of twice weekly meetings was designed to show a government wanting a deal. David Frost, the prime minister’s negotiator, is a former colleague, a diligent public official, and has considerable experience of working in the EU. He believes that a deal can be done, though his apparent downplaying of the prorogue as normal, which few believe, show the domestic pressures he faces.
For Frost and others believing a deal achievable, the key target has always been the October European Council. At this meeting they hope the EU will concede that the backstop is in fact untenable and unnecessary, and agree to move discussions to the future trade agreement, thus limiting guaranteed future alignment to the transition period of two years. The proposals of the Alternative Arrangements Commission, published in July, will be used as evidence that the UK can diverge in terms of regulations while still avoiding border infrastructure.
In this analysis the UK team is not seeking to put forward new proposals, not least because anything that has a chance of being accepted by the EU would almost certainly rile hardline Brexiteers including cabinet ministers. Instead we hear talk of ‘mini deals’ or ‘sectoral deals’, revised talk of trusted traders, which seem to aim to decompose the backstop into constituent parts, and make them part of a package to be agreed alongside or soon after the withdrawal agreement.
At least some of Johnson’s overtures to the EU can be understood as a response to Pelosi that Ireland is being taken seriously, rather than targeted at his own parliament
Johnson and Frost are both essentially optimists, though one might expect for the latter that support for Derby County FC should by now have knocked this out of him. Dominic Cummings, the latest in a long line of key prime ministerial advisers ascribed supernatural powers, probably has a more realistic view. He’ll understand that the EU has repeatedly ruled out the UK’s backstop alternatives, that the Alternative Arrangements Commission report was poorly received in Ireland and the EU, and that EU external negotiations don’t normally conclude in a European Council.
It is widely thought that for Cummings no-deal is the likely outcome. The UK has to engage to show seriousness and thereby reduce the chances of parliamentary rebellion, but his primary aim is leaving the EU at any cost on October 31st, and preparing as well as possible for this. If it requires a ‘people v parliament’ election beforehand, so be it, otherwise he expects to win an election soon after Brexit, when any disruption can be sold as less than the catastrophic ‘project fear’ predictions.
US trade deal
Part of that election messaging was to feature an impending US trade deal, an immediate Brexit dividend. Johnson and president Donald Trump are clearly committed to this, but the opposition of US Congress speaker Nancy Pelosi to anything which threatened an Irish land border, including the UK accepting US food standards, rather affected plans. At least some of Johnson’s overtures to the EU can be understood as a response to Pelosi that Ireland is being taken seriously, rather than targeted at his own parliament.
The obvious priority given to US talks in the early weeks of the Johnson administration also presented the Labour Party with an easy campaigning attack on Conservatives selling the UK and particularly the NHS to Trump. Proroguing parliament has further galvanised opposition. There is a growing view that Cummings’s bullishness risks Johnson’s desire to be re-elected, and that could affect the final outcome.
Nonetheless the scope for a possible agreement seems narrow. There’s no real sign of the UK coming up with anything that has not been rejected before by the EU, or accepting something that parliament has previously rejected, even repackaged. There’s no real sign of the EU backtracking on their commitment to Ireland and protection of the single market. The chances are that either the UK Brexits with no deal, or the UK government is forced to ask for an extension to hold a general election.
David Henig is director of the UK trade policy project at the European Centre for International Political Economy, an independent and non-profit policy research think tank