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UK left all at sea by desperate Boris Johnson’s bid for a Brexit deal

The UK has struggled to find a solution to the Irish backstop issue. Picture: The New European - Credit: Archant

DONALD MACINTYRE on the foolhardiness that has led the UK to the brink.

For optics junkies, there was an entertaining vignette of the prime ministerial return to Downing Street from his meeting with Leo Varadkar last Thursday evening. While Johnson emerges from the Jag’s offside rear door, belatedly tucking his shirt in and waving benignly at the TV crews, Dominic Cummings – unusually suited – jumps from the other side and dives straight into No.10. By the time Johnson has reached the doorway however, an unsmiling Cummings re-emerges and passes him without a word. Retrieving his forgotten coat from the car he returns to the door, now trailing in Johnson’s wake.

This neatly symbolises Cummings’ bizarrely behind-the-curve recent performance, albeit doubtless conducted under licence – however deniable – from Johnson himself. For by the weekend it was apparent that almost simultaneously with the splenetic briefing – sanctioned by Cummings if not directly issued by him – that Angela Merkel had pulled the plug on negotiations by insisting Northern Ireland remained in a customs union, Johnson himself was already thinking rather more seriously through the implications of his conversation with the German chancellor.

For all Cummings’ dire threats – the one to withdraw intelligence co-operation from any government that agreed to delay the October 31 Brexit deadline being the most deranged – it was not the EU and Ireland which now primarily changed their approach, but Johnson himself. By conceding that a customs border on the island of Ireland (as opposed to one in the Irish Sea) was not a runner, and secondly that whatever replaced Theresa May’s backstop could not be subject to a veto of the DUP alone, he was back at the table.

On Thursday morning “Kevin the Teenager” (copyright the Rt. Hon D. Lidington) was told to put on his (or someone else’s) suit and come and meet the grown-up who held the key to reaching a deal: the Taoiseach. It’s sometimes forgotten that Harold Wilson’s remark that “a week is a long time in politics” was coined during a sterling crisis in 1964. The volatility of the pound – well down after last week’s Downing Street briefings and well up after negotiations resumed – thus reinforced what would have anyway been a striking example of Wilson’s too often quoted adage. Either way Cummings shut up for a bit.

Brexit predictions are notoriously a mug’s game. So let’s be a mug. The chances of a deal, or at least one that Johnson can get past by the Commons, may still be finely balanced. But what does seem to have receded, probably to the point of elimination is the much trumpeted no-deal option. It’s likely that Johnson began to realise this even before Downing Street started to float ways of getting round the Benn Act which precluded it. Take one of the post hoc rationales produced last weekend for his shift – intelligence that a Northern Ireland hard border could create serious security risks in the mainland as well as in Northern Ireland itself (the latter seeming to be of no account to hardline Tory Brexiteers). Such warnings would surely have been given, if at all, to Johnson from the moment he took office, if not before.

Johnson has not renounced the no-deal threat, of course. Indeed Jacob Rees-Mogg was still at it on Monday, suggesting that the government might resort – of all things – to EU law to get round the Benn Act. But the likelihood is that if Johnson genuinely – if misguidedly – thought the threat might help to wring concessions from Ireland and the rest of the EU, he has for some time realised that to try and implement it might spell a short-lived premiership because of the social and economic damage it would inflict.

There are dangers, however, in all this. All the talk – not least in some BBC news bulletins – of “hopes” and “cautious optimism” about the “dream scenario” of an agreement seemingly takes as read that a putative Johnson deal is a Good Thing. The EU is entirely right to regard preservation of the Good Friday Agreement, which Johnson had been originally prepared to sacrifice, as sacrosanct. But it was hardly the only worrying aspect – for Britain – of his proposed deal.

Johnson had no doubt already hoped to generate artificial euphoria on Monday by his embarrassing abuse of the Queen and all that Merrie England panoply by insisting on the state opening of a parliament in which he enjoys what, as Jeremy Corbyn put it, a majority of “minus 45”. And by Sajid Javid’s bullish announcement of a “post-Brexit” budget on November 8. But it had begun well before – and not just in the City – thanks to the EU’s negotiating developments.

That’s presumably why one of the most important scoops of the past week, made such little impact. This was the BBC economics editor Faisal Islam’s discovery that five manufacturing trade associations were raising alarm bells about the Johnson plan – not least because of the lack of regulatory alignment with Europe. As Islam pointed out, by decrying the plan as worse than May’s, the manufacturers – who contribute £98 billion to the UK economy – were for the first time attacking a specific form of Brexit, rather than simply repeating their tedious parroting (not Islam’s phrase) of opposition to no-deal. This was further reinforced with the estimate of Britain in a Changing Europe, the academic team led by Anand Menon, that per capita GDP would be reduced by 6.4% by a Johnson deal – compared with “only” 4.9% by the May deal – or, put very crudely, by as much as £2,000 a head.

(If you want, incidentally, to understand the lengths Johnson will go to in pursuit of the chimera of a US trade deal that could remotely offset these costs, consider his reaction – in contrast to that of his fellow ex-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt – to Donald Trump’s most ruinous foreign policy decision of the year. Downing Street reported of their phone call that “the [two] leaders expressed their serious concern at Turkey’s invasion… and the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe in the region”. As if that invasion had not been wilfully enabled the previous day by the US president’s shameless decision to pull the US troop contingent out of northeast Syria.)

This matters, not least because it should – and conceivably may – influence some of those MPs contemplating a Johnson deal, including those in two groups: at least 19 opposition MPs who have threatened to vote for it in defiance of the Labour whip, and the 21 Tories who are no longer – thanks to Johnson’s retributive fiat – subject to the Tory whip.

These groups will prove pivotal if both the DUP and all the ‘Spartan’ Brexiteers finally fall in line behind Johnson. There are signs that the Spartans at least may do just that in the wake of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s oxymoronic weekend appeal – repeated by the hard line European Reform Group MPs’ leader Steve Baker on Tuesday – to “trust” Johnson, particularly as he has locked so many of their leaders into highly desirable ministerial jobs.

Lee Rowley, an admittedly ultra-obscure diehard Leave backbench MP – who on Monday announced that he would back a deal – may just be the canary in the mine. Of course, the personal career impact – particularly for those not intending to leave parliament and, among Tories, hoping to be re-embraced by the Johnson regime – will weigh heavily among some of the 19 and the 21. But the former still have to consider why, when most did not vote for the May deal, they would now consider supporting one which was demonstrably worse, in economic terms, for their own constituents. And those of the latter who voted for the May deal would have to ask themselves if they too, as Remainers, could vote for the greater of two evils.

Especially if the alternative was to support the now-revived idea of a second referendum. And here Labour remains key.

Since Corbyn was still this week resisting the growing clamour in the shadow cabinet and party membership for him to back a referendum, it’s worth rehearsing a little recent, if nerdy, Labour Party history. Back on July 8 the major unions met to thrash out a common line on Brexit. There was some subtle give-and-take at the meeting by Corbyn’s closest union ally, Len McCluskey, leader of Unite. He secured from his colleagues a promise – the one that Corbyn has stuck to – that in any pre-Brexit election Labour would promise to negotiate its own Brexit deal. But in return McCluskey conceded that in the event of a Tory deal Labour would argue for a referendum in which it would campaign for Remain.

McCluskey told me in August that he thought the first of these was the “more important” – understandably, as he expected Johnson not to negotiate a deal. But the day after the union meeting, the shadow cabinet – as usual under internal pressure to support a referendum – quickly approved Scenario One. So much so that Corbyn wrote to Labour Party members that very day: “Whoever becomes the new prime minister [at the time Johnson or Hunt] should have the confidence to put their deal, or no-deal, back to the people in a public vote.” Adding that: “In those circumstances Labour would campaign for Remain against either no-deal or a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs.”

This left little doubt that if a successor brought a new deal back to the Commons – as Johnson now well may – Labour policy would be for a referendum. The handful of hardline Brexiteers around Corbyn may argue that this was superseded by the subsequent party conference which (in some confusion and without a card vote) failed to pass an unequivocal Remain/pro referendum motion. But it wasn’t.

Neither of the two resolutions that were passed negated what was already – and still is – the shadow cabinet’s, and Corbyn’s own, formal support for a referendum on a “Tory Brexit”. So Labour is bound to a second referendum not just by well-justified fears of defeat in an early election, but by policy. Not to mention principle, since if it was right to ask the public in a referendum in 2016 if it wanted to leave the EU, it must be equally right to ask what they think of the terms more than three years later, whether of Johnson’s deal, or in the absence of one, of the May deal still on the table. Given Johnson’s hostility so far to a second referendum – or allegedly even to implementing a Commons vote on one – a push for it might well go in tandem with a ‘no confidence’ vote, – if one is winnable. This could lead to a temporary cross-party government under a widely acceptable interim prime minister, who doesn’t seem to be Corbyn.

There have been unconfirmed hints that speaker John Bercow might be acceptable to the Labour leader. But Ken Clarke, once a nearly PM in his own right, and a former holder of two great offices of state (at the Home Office and the Treasury), is at least as strong a candidate, probably with Corbyn as his deputy.

So there are plenty of unknowns ahead. Whether Johnson will secure a deal at all, let alone by the end of this month. Whether another EU summit will be necessary after this week. Whether Saturday’s planned Commons sitting will even go ahead. Whether the government’s Commons supporters back the deal if and when there is one. Will the DUP, whom Johnson tried to charm into submission again on Tuesday, listen to the business community, and some of its base, by accepting a Northern Ireland – partially – ‘left behind’ in the EU? Or will it cast its ten votes according to its hard-line unionist ideology and say another of its habitual ‘Nos’ – leaving Boris Johnson up the Irish Sea without a paddle?

Moreover, to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, there are no doubt as many “unknown unknowns” to come. But there are also some of Rumsfeld’s “known knowns”.

One is that the moment – some would say the last moment – has come for Labour to fulfil its historic duty as an opposition and do everything it can, not just precipitating an election, to prevent the steady decline in living standards for “the many”, national cohesion, and influence that the Johnson deal, even more than May’s, would bequeath to Britain.

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