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What is Boris Johnson really up to? The Prime Minister has attempted to keep his opponents guessing since he took office. But the letter sent to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, on Monday suggests he is not really serious about striking a new deal with the EU. Johnson is creating an alibi for diplomatic failure.
Boris has said many times he wants a settlement: “I want a deal. We’re ready to work with our friends and partners to get a deal.” And his letter yesterday evening elaborated on the familiar lines: The backstop is unacceptable and it must go. To avoid a hard border the UK and EU should seek alternative arrangements before the conclusion of the transition period.
But Johnson’s team is under no illusion that the EU can offer him a deal on the terms laid out in the letter. Both sides are bound by their fundamentally incompatible red lines. Johnson’s requests are also internally inconsistent. He emphasised his commitment to avoiding a hard border in Ireland, but at the same time rebuffed the idea of remaining in a customs union, or having any kind of regulatory alignment. The solution then to avoiding a hard border lies in “alternative” arrangements which, as of yet, do not exist.
This was not a letter directed towards re-opening negotiating channels, but rather a ruse to allow Johnson to sidestep parliament. If Johnson managed to procure a deal he would have no choice but to put it before the Commons. But because of his barely-there majority any deal he presents – backstop or no backstop – looks destined to fail.
His perceived strength at home relies on him not making the same mistakes as his predecessor. Theresa May looked weak because she failed to get her deal through parliament three times. Johnson is savvy and shows every sign that hewon’t let himself be led down the same road. Yesterday, when pressed on whether he thinks negotiations will progress, he responded:
“Well, that is, I’m afraid, very much up to our friends [the EU], and I hope that they will compromise.”
By hinging a new deal on the EU’s willingness to compromise Johnson is setting up a situation in which he can blame the failure of negotiations (or lack of) on them. He knows the EU cannot countenance his demands and strike a deal that contravenes its own redlines; or one that relies on arrangements that do not exist; or one that doesn’t put up a hard border but instead compromises the integrity of the single market even further, and flies in the face of the internal laws and treaties upon which the EU is built.
The fact that the EU won’t give him a deal on the terms laid out in his letter is exactly what Johnson wants. His plan, unlike May’s, does not rely on EU flexibility, or capitulation – in fact, it relies on much the opposite.
He’s dressed up as a good faith negotiator looking for compromise from the EU when he knows he will never get it. Which means he’ll never have to see a deal fail in parliament. Instead he will say, in lieu of striking a deal, it is up to him to respect the mandate of the 2016 referendum and pursue no deal – backed into a corner by the intransigence of those on the other side of the negotiating table.
There is one flaw. It would be a clever strategy if it weren’t so transparent – the truth hasn’t eluded Dublin and it won’t elude the EU either.
Whatever the fall out of no deal, when it happens Boris will try to pin it on the EU. His sidestepping of parliament will be pinned on the EU and MPs too.
Will it work? It could be a win win for Johnson. Or, it could blow up in his face if the EU successfully deny him the narrative that no deal was its fault all along, or if opponents of no deal in the UK tell a clear enough story. Either way, the strategy should fool no-one.