Brexit: why it’s too soon to write off a Boris Johnson deal I FT


Boris Johnson is reeling from
defeat to defeat in the courts and in parliament. But it’s probably too
soon to write him off. Here with me is
Robert Shrimsley, our political commentator, to
talk about what might be billed as the ‘Great Escape’. Well, as you say, it’s
too soon to be confident, but what is very
clear and what’s become very clear
in the last few days is that there are sort of two
Downing Street operations going on. There’s the one that everyone’s
hearing about and talking about. Dominic Cummings,
his chief strategist, all of the noise and
all of the standing firm and playing tough. Then there’s the other thing,
which is going on a little bit below the waterline
which is the efforts to see if there is a deal to be
done with the European Union. And that deal is
to be done around whether you can create
a Northern Ireland only backstop or something
that falls a little bit short of that. You remember that obviously
Theresa May’s deal had a backstop that caught the
whole of the United Kingdom in its web. What Boris Johnson
is looking at is to see whether he can carve
out a Northern Ireland only solution. And that’s what’s going on. Right. So we’ll look at that in a bit
more detail, but the really interesting thing you’ve
said there is that we’ve got a two-tier Downing Street. We’ve got Dominic
Cummings, who’s this Svengali figure who’s
attracting all the publicity, but there’s something much
more serious and less noisy going on, which is
really quite serious – all hands to the deck
to try and get a deal. Yeah. I don’t think the two sides
are in conflict with each other necessarily, but I think
that a lot of reporting, the eyes of the
reporting world, have been drawn by this very
interesting strategist who’s very newsworthy and
very reportable. And what’s been going on
quietly is somewhere else. And I think that’s
what we’re seeing is a lot of the diplomatic work
beginning below the waterline. Now, how serious it
is we’re not yet sure. There’s a long, long way to go. And there’s 27-plus countries
and parliaments that have to ratify any future deal. Yeah. But again, the key is that the
main obstacle to an agreement is this question of
Northern Ireland. It’s not the divorce bill,
40bn euros, 39bn euros. It’s not about illegal
issues on EU citizens, right? Yeah, that’s right. And the fundamental problem
with the all-UK backstop was that the whole
of the United Kingdom could be caught forever
under the EU purview. Caught in a customs
unit, in particular, for all of the rules that
it would have to obey. Boris Johnson
couldn’t stomach that. He talked about a vassal state. Exactly. What he’s looking at is
whether he can come up with a special arrangement
for Northern Ireland which, it’s worth remembering, is what
the European Union proposed in the first place. And Theresa May said
no, I’m not going to have the union broken up. I’m not going to have a
line in the union drawn along the Irish Sea,
and Northern Ireland on the other side of it. Now, I don’t think
Boris Johnson is ready to countenance a full
Northern Ireland being treated entirely differently
from the rest of the UK, entirely subject to the
rulings of the European Court. But what he is
prepared to look at is some kind of compromise
where, in some areas, it might be. And the most
obvious one, the one where he’s clearly
prepared to move, is on agri-products,
what’s known as the sanitary and
phytosanitary area, which, interestingly,
although people say it only accounts
for 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the value
of trade between Northern Ireland and the republic, it’s
80 per cent of the volume. So if you can get
something done on that, if you can have
freedom of movement for agricultural
products, that’s a big chunk of the
puzzle taken care of. It’s not all of it, by any
stretch of the imagination. There are lots of other issues. But it’s a starting point. Now, you know I don’t
like putting you on the spot, penalty spot, or
any other football metaphor, but here’s the big question. Is Brussels, Paris,
Berlin prepared to allow Boris the ‘Great
Escape’ and strike a deal? Well, I think they
will, in large part, take their lead from
Ireland on this matter. But what’s been proposed
so far is not enough. That’s clear to me. What Boris Johnson is
talking about so far isn’t enough, because you’ve
got issues of tariffs, VAT, regulatory controls, governance,
dispute mechanisms, lots of other things
that aren’t settled. The question is how far
he’s prepared to move. And if they sense he’s prepared
to move quite a long way on this might they be
prepared to give him a little bit of wiggle room. So I don’t know is the
answer to your question, but what I do know is that the
conversations are happening and it’s not impossible. And chapter two… There’s very little time. Yeah. And obviously, he’s then got to
win a parliamentary vote with the backing of the… Well, the political side… …hardliners… …of it is a whole
other area of… And we’re going to come to that. He’s had six votes that he’s
lost so far, six out of six. It’s a flawless record. But don’t write
him off just yet. Thank you, Robert Shrimsley.

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