It’s now or never for Boris Johnson if he wants a Brexit breakthrough

1 October 2019

12:42 AM

1 October 2019

12:42 AM

There is only one speech that matters this week, here in Manchester at Tory party conference.

It will be Boris Johnson’s on Wednesday and it will be significant – potentially historic – for what he has to say about how and whether he hopes to break the impasse with Brussels on negotiating an alternative to the Northern Ireland backstop and therefore strike a new deal to leave the EU.

Intriguingly, perhaps weirdly, cabinet ministers are ebullient with optimism that Johnson is on the verge of striking a deal with Juncker and Barnier that is sellable to most Tory MPs, Northern Ireland’s DUP and even enough Labour MPs to carry it across the line in a Commons vote.

By contrast when I talk to EU sources about this British optimism, they think I am taking leave of my senses.

Because they have heard nothing from British negotiators – either ministers or officials – to suggest an acceptable compromise is anywhere in sight.

On the other side of the Channel, in Brussels, Berlin and Paris, the working assumption is the UK is leaving the EU without a deal, possibly on the due date of 31 October, more likely a few short weeks later after a general election.

In other words, with the clock ticking, if Johnson is true to what he says about actually wanting a deal, he has to make a big new offer to the EU – and very soon indeed.

My understanding is he will do this on Wednesday and Thursday – which means presumably in his conference speech and then in a follow-up statement to the Commons on Thursday.

And if he is really and truly seeking a breakthrough, he will have to say something new and important about customs arrangements on the island of Ireland.

Johnson’s informal suggestion of an island-of-Ireland free trade zone for agri-foods, and possibly for goods too, is seen in Brussels as helpful, though it is not clear whether Johnson would allow this area to follow EU single-market rules in perpetuity.

But the huge outstanding problem for Johnson is that Brussels continues to insist Northern Ireland must be a member of an arrangement very like the customs union, to eliminate customs checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, unless and until some other way can be found to avoid those checks.

But this carries the toxic implication – for Johnson, Brexiter Tory MPs and especially Northern Ireland’s DUP, whom Johnson does not want to repudiate – of there being customs checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, of there being an important new border within the United Kingdom, in the Irish Sea.

What Johnson has so far suggested as an alternative to customs union membership, namely light-touch checks away from the NI border with the Republic facilitated by new technology and schemes to licence some traders as “trusted”, is seen in Brussels as a potential long-term solution, but not as a contingency plan for the immediate future.

“They are the start of a conversation, not operative” says a Brussels source.

That means there would be a no-deal Brexit unless Johnson, within 48 hours, comes up with a plan which EU leaders belatedly acknowledge as a workable guarantee to keep the border on the island of Ireland relatively friction free, while simultaneously protecting the integrity of the EU’s single market.

Truthfully I cannot see how Johnson pulls this off, without being accused – as Theresa May was – of betraying the Brexit dream and the spirit of unionism.

But that may be a failure of imagination on my part (wouldn’t be the first time).

The point is we will know by the weekend whether, with Boris Johnson as premier, the UK is or is not heading for a no-deal Brexit. And if it is no deal, for the opposition parties it then becomes a matter of life or death whether they can prevent no deal while he remains in 10 Downing Street.

Robert Peston is ITV’s political editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV News blog

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