Boris Johnson anointed his cabinet yesterday, clearing out half of what was already there. I could say a lot about this – Patel as Home Secretary and Raab as FCO are both truly horrific appointments – but I’ll leave most of that to others. I’m more confused about what Johnson thinks he’s going to do now that ever, but that isn’t much of a surprise. He seems to have played himself into an even sharper corner – time will tell.
What I’d rather talk about is a myth doing the rounds about the backstop. I know, I know this is a boring topic that everyone is sick of. But hear me out: this really matters, since it is key to understanding a lot of what Johnson might be planning, and further, the fundamental mistakes that are still being made when discussing what options are available to the new prime minister.
The idea that the EU is going to drop the backstop refuses to die within UK commentary. The reasons commonly given are fear of no deal Brexit on the continent (way less than imagined – there is a lot of momentum for letting the Brits crash out and see what awaits them afterward), we can bribe the EU (they will not give Johnson something they wouldn’t have given May strictly for Euros; besides, they are in prime position to get cash out of the UK anyhow, without having to give anything up), that Johnson will agree a political declaration quickly with the EU, thereby negating the need for a backstop at all. The last one here is the most important to take apart.
Let’s say Johnson goes to an extreme and tells the EU that he wants Norway Plus. Ignore any problems he might have selling this inside his own party for a moment, let’s say he manages that for argument’s sake. The EU will still insist on a backstop. They have to. What happens if the UK changes its mind midway through negotiations? What if Mark Francois becomes PM and wants to do something totally different? The EU will insist on a backstop to the negotiations no matter what. Perhaps Johnson tries to get another form of backstop – we just remain in the EU until the negotiations are finished, say – but they put him in an even worse political situation.
If it’s the much more complicated (and likely) Canada style deal Johnson requests, the backstop becomes even more critical from an EU point of view. That would take years if not another decade to sort out. These aren’t opinions on my part here, they are just the facts. You can dislike the EU point of view all you like, but it is what it is. They aren’t bluffing.
Johnson needs to get a deal through parliament in the next couple of months. Otherwise, he faces a massive crisis. His party may well split. He could be forced into a general election that will very likely see him electorally slaughtered. Or he can call another referendum, which has all sorts of problems attached to it from Johnson’s perspective.
In other words, this could all come down to the backstop. Again.