Boris Johnson wants a Brexit deal with the EU, or so he claims. But yesterday he made it clear how high the price is. “It must be clearly understood that the way to the deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop.” He’s opted for scrapping the backstop rather than compromising with the EU or Dublin in a move that compounds the impression his newly appointed cabinet also creates – Brexit means hard Brexit.
Speaking to the Commons yesterday, Johnson claimed that even negotiating a time limit to the backstop – one possible compromise available (although not if you ask Dublin) – was not sufficient. Nor limiting the backstop to just Northern Ireland. Any new deal he might negotiate has to come bearing no backstop at all.
Boris must know that a deal without a backstop is not going to be procured. He’s not exactly a stickler for detail, but every missive from Dublin and the EU in the past year has emphasised that the backstop is a must, it’s not up for renegotiation. And while this hardline stance from the EU is in part a negotiating tactic, and there may actually be some compromise to be struck over the backstop, that compromise is never going to be so large as to scrapping it altogether.
All this sets Boris up as a prime minister heading for a no-deal exit, and by design too. If he knows that there is no deal to be struck without a backstop, and he won’t accept a deal that has a backstop, then what could he possibly imagine the outcome will be?
On one level it’s a crafty move – he can say he wants a deal over and over, and when the EU won’t give him one by virtue of his impossible demands, he can blame it on their intransigence. Then he can go for no-deal, appease the right of his party, and get back those crucial votes stolen by the Brexit Party. And if it all goes horribly wrong he can go back and blame the EU for not giving him the deal he knew he would never get in the first place.
But don’t think this strategy has gone unnoticed in Dublin. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, has said the Irish government is now focusing its efforts on no-deal preparations. Johnson has set the UK on a collision course with the EU, and it can’t end in any other way than no deal: “That would be very, very challenging for all political parties, for many businesses, for many sectors. We will do everything we can to try to mitigate against that damage,” he added.
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“It has been made very clear from the Taoiseach, from Michel Barnier, from presidents Tusk and Juncker that the approach that the British Prime Minister seems now to be taking is not going to be the basis for an agreement. And that is worrying for everybody.”
In the short term, Boris has made Varadkar’s life a little easier. The political task facing Varadkar is just defending the backstop against Boris’s absolutist stance.
Varadkar took such a strong stance on the backstop he would find any climb down via compromise a difficult thing to stage manage. And, for a time, it appeared that the only way a deal was going to work would be via a compromise on the backstop – whether that be via a time limit, or a Northern Ireland only scenario.
But now that Johnson has set up his position – simple to a fault – Varadkar doesn’t have to do any of that. He doesn’t have to find tweaks, or compromises, negotiate that publicly, or sell it in the Dáil against opposition parties and a strengthening Fianna Fáil as his own popularity declines. All that’s left for Varadkar to do is defend the line against Boris Johnson – and that’ll play well with the Irish electorate.
Today he talked about the impact of no-deal on the future of the Union, a sticking point for Johnson already: “It raises very serious questions about the future of Northern Ireland,” the Taoiseach said. “ I do think that more and more people, certainly in the event of no deal, more and more people in Northern Ireland will come to question the union.”
But the long term doesn’t look so good for Ireland’s leader. If it comes to it, Varadkar has the tough challenge of preparing for the practical and PR implications of a no-deal Brexit.
And in all likelihood, Varadkar will share in some of the blame for such an outcome, either due to compromising too much, or not enough. The answer to that question will depend on who you ask.