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Boris Johnson is clear. He defines the terms of his Tory leadership bid as taking the UK out of the EU “deal or no deal”, “do or die” on 31st October. But it is hard to see the (likely) future prime minister managing to avoid reneging on his central campaign promise.
His priority, he says, is to secure a deal. The options are this: push the current deal through parliament as is; secure superficial changes that grant MPs who have opposed it so far a ladder to climb down to support it this time round; or renegotiate and secure significant changes.
If he fails in this effort he says he will go for a no deal exit. The options then are proroguing parliament to force no deal through, or not seek an extension and hoping, come 31st October, remain and moderate MPs haven’t succeeded in preventing no-deal.
But every option in this chain is unlikely to work.
First, Johnson will try to renegotiate the backstop in Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. Since launching his bid he hasn’t laid out exactly what he wants from this renegotiation, but in February Johnson said the UK would have to have a mechanism to get out of the backstop “by a certain time” and “by our own volition”. That means he will try to secure a time limit to the arrangement. A time-limited backstop is something, if achieved, that could see the parliamentary deadlock broken and the dea passed. If achieved.
Securing the time-limit would be a real coup for the next prime minister – preventing the UK from being locked into a customs arrangement that certain hardline Brexiteers believe upends the entire purpose of the project in the first place. But, senior EU officials have repeatedly made clear the deal is not up for renegotiation, and a time-limited backstop has been dismissed time and again as nothing short of fantasy. Just last month Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker restated this position, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has repeatedly ran with the same line.
While the shape of the EU is changing, following MEP elections and a shakeup in the top jobs (that will likely mean Merkel-light, Ursula Von Der Leyen, becoming Commission President), Johnson will still struggle to secure any of these changes with the bloc. Even if the new faces were to take a different approach to renegotiation, and concede to the UK to prevent a no deal exit, the timings don’t match up if Johnson is to keep his promise of leaving 31st October. The new team won’t be in place in time. He will be faced with the task of seeking renegotiation with the Old Guard who have already declared it an impossibility.
Changes to the Political Declaration – the non legally binding document on the future UK-EU relationship – are a possibility. But it is unclear what changes the future prime minister could secure that would pacify the concerns of hard Brexiteers obsessed with the backstop. And when it comes to passing the deal as is, even Johnson looks unable to corral a majority there. Without fundamentally changing the deal (and the backstop), or winning a bigger majority via General Election, neither Johnson nor Hunt can leave the EU on 31st October with a deal.
So then it’s down to a no-deal exit for Johnson. No-deal Brexit is the legal default, so the line goes. Seems simple – but comes with the massive presumption that parliament won’t do all it can to prevent such an outcome. And, while there have been a few failed attempts (and a few successful ones) at doing preventing a no-deal exit, it would be unwise to assume parliament won’t try again.
As the prospect of no deal becomes more likely (with the advent of a more hardline Brexiteer prime minister) we could see these attempts garner more support than before, and there are a few mechanisms in the pipelines already.
First, former Attorney General Dominic Grieve is tabling an amendment to prevent the prime minister proroguing parliament to force through no deal. Grieve, a Tory Remainer, is also seeking to bind the government to report to parliament on the state of preparations and negotiations every fortnight.
Then, in the style of the Cooper-Letwin amendment from April, MPs will seek to require the prime minister to ask for a further extension. Lastly, there is the extreme measure of Tory rebels voting with the opposition to bring down a government set on pursuing a no deal Brexit. The latter may be unlikely to happen, since even the most ardent anti-no-dealers like David Gauke have expressed their reluctance to vote down a new administration and risk a Corbyn led government. But the threat could be enough to force the prime minister into seeking an extension anyway.
Even if these measures are not successful first time round the support they’re likely to receive indicate a parliament willing to try and thwart a no deal Brexit at every turn. Johnson will have to be consistently lucky to win out every time, and with a working majority of just five (set to shrink following a by-election in early August) the position of the next prime minister is increasingly precarious.
Both Hunt and Johnson have ruled out holding a general election prior to delivering Brexit – worried about the prospect of electoral ruin at the hands of the resurgent Lib Dems and nascent (but dangerous) Brexit Party. If a general election is off the table then the future prime minister is left with an array of impossibilities if he wants to leave “deal or no deal” on 31st October. Something has to give and until the new prime minister is in post, it is unclear what that is.
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