Everyone in Westminster is trying to work out how Boris Johnson wriggles out of the cage he put himself in. He says he won’t ask for an extension, yet will obey the law. This appears to be impossible to achieve. There is one way he can do it, of course: get a withdrawal agreement through parliament before October 31st. The latest rumour, no doubt started by Number 10 itself, is that Johnson will ask for the backstop to apply to Norther Ireland only. So, yes, we make the decision to draw the customs border along the Irish Sea in the end, cutting off Nord Iron from the rest of the UK in a very real way.
If this were to happen and Johnson puts this deal in front of the House of Commons to vote on, I think that will be the end of his political career within weeks, and very possibly the Conservative party’s electoral chances for a generation. It’s such a terrible idea, in so many different ways, it’s amazing it is even being contemplated in Downing Street.
For a start, you lose the DUP instantly. Now, when I say this to people in the bubble, they respond with: “well, yeah, but he’s lost his majority anyhow”. This is like losing a hand and then saying that means losing your other one is now no big shakes – wrong, the one hand you still have becomes even more important. The DUP won’t abstain either, but vote against, so it’s almost like losing twenty votes. Further on this point, you lose the DUP for the foreseeable future, not just on this vote. They will not trust the Conservative party again for a very long time, if ever. A general election is looming that is assumed to be tight; another confidence and supply deal with the DUP might be necessary. You’ve just burned that possibility. It is also the final nail in the “Unionist” bit of the Tory party’s name, but I suppose that’s been coming for some time.
The ERG bunch will vote against the deal as well. Baker and his bunch will put pressure on Brexiteer cabinet members to resign from government and vote with them. The number here could get large. Johnson has vowed to remove the whip on anyone who defies him, just as he did with Hammond, Stewart and the moderates, if this happens. Even if he doesn’t, just holding the vote could precipitate a flock of ERG members joining the Brexit Party. This will be a huge boost to Farage – as will the fact that Johnson has just handed the Brexit party their entire general election campaign. “Johnson wants a deal and it is clear he won’t take us out of the EU without one.”
Worse of all, this will all be for less than nothing. He’ll lose the vote – there are only so many Labour votes he can count on, bearing in mind it won’t be the result of any consultation with the Labour Party MPs who want to see Brexit happen, added to the fact that no deal will no longer be looming in the shadows because of the Benn Bill.
This leaves Johnson with two choices in the general election: either try and campaign as the no deal Brexit party, which won’t be believable because of the vote on the withdrawal deal being held; or, run as the Brexit with a deal party, which will be very unpopular. All of this will mean that the Tories will be running to win a general election, not as the Brexit Party as there is a Farage led bunch doing that much more believably; not as the voice of One Nation moderation, as Johnson has very visibly rejected that by kicking the 21 out; not as the fiscally sound party, as they want to take the country over an economic cliff on purpose and are throwing money around willy nilly anyhow; not as the Unionist party, as they were willing to cut Northern Ireland lose to serve their immediate purposes; not as the Remain party, obviously. By putting the deal in front of parliament with the Northern Ireland only backstop, Johnson will effectively be removing any and all reasons to vote for the Conservative party, other than historical habit and a fear of a Corbyn led government.
It is a sign of how desperate the government has become in a very short period of time that the Irish Sea backstop is being contemplated. But then again, they are desperate.