In the history of the Brexit debacle, one period really stands out for me. It was December 2017. I remember being confused about the relaxed mode the political media were in given it seemed to me like the Conservative party must be about to explode. Theresa May was on the verge of agreeing the parameters of a deal with the EU, including the backstop, that seemed certain to irritate either/both the DUP and the ERG. Yet every political journalist I spoke to seemed confused about my confusion. “It’ll all be fine,” they told me. And sure enough, it was. The ERG bunch even declared the whole thing a victory. It was then that I figured that Theresa May was definitely going to get her eventual deal through parliament given she’d already got agreement on the trickiest bits of it.
Except, as we now know, she hadn’t really. It seems to me like the ERG just must not have comprehended what May had agreed with the EU in December 2017, getting wise to it in the intervening year or so. In summary, in December 2017 there existed a gap between what the ERG understood, what the government understood about the position of both the EU and their own MPs, and what the political media understood about all of it.
I see a freakishly similar thing playing out again, in much the same fashion as well. Johnson is supposed to be inching toward a deal with the EU that will fly through parliament. He’s got the DUP on side and working on getting the ERG happy with it all. Even with a few unhappy Tory MPs to consider, loads of Labour MPs are bound to vote for it. The government is on track for a deal before the end of October, saving Johnson’s blushes.
Except, it seems even more transparent this time round why this is very unlikely to happen, both the part about Johnson getting the EU to agree to something substantially different from the May deal and the bit regarding getting the deal through parliament. The obstacles to both are substantial.
It seems to me like this is what is actually happening:
- The EU want a deal if possible and they really don’t want to seem like if no deal happened, if it does happen, it did so because they were unduly difficult about everything. So, they pointed out the areas they were willing to move on – for instance, changing from the UK wide backstop to a Northern Ireland only backstop – and then asked Johnson what he wanted to do. If Johnson can now agree to something they are willing to give and get it through parliament, this would be the EU’s preferred outcome.
- However, they are not willing to change anything drastic or bend any of their red lines. This much is obvious from everything they have said or done over the last month (and the last three years as well).
- Johnson is probably asking the DUP what it would take for them to agree the deal. They tell him a bunch stuff they want, most of which has zero chance of being successfully negotiated, he says he’ll go and get it done. The DUP look like they are climbing down from previous positions held, but they aren’t really – they are readdressing their red lines and saying that if they get movement from the EU side, they are willing to vote for a deal. Again, this movement is really unlikely to happen.
- There is an assumption, like last time round, that the ERG will vote any old thing through because “they might see Brexit imperilled otherwise”. At least last time round, they hadn’t proven that this wasn’t the case already, so there was half an excuse available for this lazy thinking from the media.
- In summary, Johnson has probably done that thing he always does: telling one set of people that this set of stuff will happen, telling the other side that their stuff will happen, and not worrying too much that these two sets of things are mutually exclusive, sure that it will all magically work out in the end.
Perhaps I’m way off on this and a deal really is close to being done on all sides. Perhaps the Johnson government, while looking shambolic, is really a well-oiled machine doing the seemingly impossible. Somehow, I really doubt it. Just as much as my gut feeling in December 2017 turned out in the end to be true, I think my gut feeling is the correct one in September 2019.
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