After the party comes the hangover. Following all of yesterday’s hype about “light at the end of the tunnel” and taking Leo Varadkar’s very guarded words about the possibility of a deal being reached between the EU and the UK next week as being confirmation that “Boris has done it” by certain sections of the British press, we get today. The Barclay-Barnier summit ended early; Tusk came out and said that “we are still in a situation in which the UK has not come forward with a workable, realistic proposal.”
What is actually going on? Why did the Irish feel enough positivity yesterday not to shut down talks completely? I figure there are three possibilities.
- BoJo offered the Irish the moon on a stick as a punt
At the meeting in Cheshire yesterday, it is possible that Johnson did what he supposedly usually does: say whatever he thinks the other person wants to hear and then hope that when he does that next time round, even though he has promised mutually exclusive things, everything will somehow come out in the wash. I can imagine a situation where Johnson offered something like a permanent customs union for Northern Ireland or what amounts to it. The Irish will have been surprised if this had been the case and then cautiously optimistic if Johnson swore he would get it done.
I can see why Johnson might have done this. The DUP rolled over on several red lines on the original BoJo offer, so Johnson would have every right to wonder if they might just do so again. Closing the eyes of the DUP, one step at a time. He knows that the DUP are the critical group in all of this: the group of 19 Labour MPs drooling for a deal seem ready to sign up to anything, even if it results in a pogrom in Yorkshire coupled with mandatory zero hours contracts for everyone with under a million pounds in assets throughout the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the ERG seem to be willing to follow the DUP lead on anything Brexit-related, particularly now their hero is prime minister. It probably won’t work, but if this is what Johnson has done, I get why he’s done it.
2. He wants to replace May’s deal with his as the de facto withdrawal agreement
It seems clear that if there is going to be an election in the next couple of months, Johnson won’t go into that on a platform of no deal. Whatever the downsides of running on a “Boris deal” are (the Brexit party could cut into the Tory vote big time), he clearly doesn’t want no deal if there is a deal to be had. Correctly or falsely, he believes that if he had a majority in parliament, he could squeeze a deal out of the EU. What he needs to do is work out what that deal might look like and is using this period to establish the outlines of that. In other words, he knows what he’s setting up probably won’t fly with the DUP and thus enough of the ERG in this parliament, but it sets him up for the general election.
3. He’s just shaking things up and doing the unexpected to change the narrative for the sake of it
Feeling boxed in, an uncomfortable and unfamiliar feeling for BoJo, it is entirely possible that he felt the need to just shake things up for the sake of it. Make some furtive promises to the Irish that you know almost certainly won’t fly; that keeps the talks alive at least until the Council summit next week. It also keeps the Labour Party, the rest of the opposition and the political media guessing. Better that than have them all assuming they know what’s going to happen next. Also, shake things up and who knows what happens from that exercise. If you have no other move, this one makes a certain amount of sense.
In short, who knows what Boris Johnson said to Leo Varadkar or what the plan is. But I figure it has to fit into one of the three scenarios outlined above.