Brexit: Is Boris Johnson Set To Spring A Surprise?

Senior government figures are counselling caution after Tuesday's Brussels excitement, but the first deadline looms.

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For Brexiteers, unlike Theresa May, deadlines in negotiations really matter. British politics right now is focused on three different dates with destiny: this Thursday’s EU summit, this Saturday’s Benn Act trigger and this Halloween’s scheduled Brexit Day.

And as each deadline is approached, we should find out very soon which of the two contradictory caricatures of the EU is correct. Do they only ever act at one minute to midnight? Or do they always find some way to kick the can down Brussels’ Rue de la Loi?

But deadlines can also be a double-edged sword. It’s the EU which has set its own informal deadline of midnight Tuesday for both sides to agree something like a legal text of a Brexit deal. With Boris Johnson all but committed to getting prior sign-off from the DUP and the hardline European Research Group (ERG), those two groups are facing some tough choices of their own.

Enough of the ERG seem to be on board with what they’ve been told (or rather sold) by No.10 so far. Coming out of an 80-minute Downing Street meeting, self-styled Brexit hardman Steve Baker said “I am optimistic that it is possible to reach a tolerable deal that I am able to vote for”. After the weekly ERG meeting in the Commons he added: “we do, we can and we must trust the PM.”

Some of this is a very delicate diplomatic dance. As our Arj Singh reports, sometimes No.10 have asked their own MPs “what does success look like to you?”, as they scope out green lights rather than red lines.

Several backbenchers have been reassured not just by the presence of fellow hardcore Brexiteer Dominic Cummings in No.10 meetings, but also by the PM’s political secretary, Danny Kruger, seen as a pragmatist who won’t sell them out. Kruger’s mum is TV cookery judge Prue Leith and the Great Brexit Bake-Off will involve a tricky mix of challenges. All against the clock.

As trusting as the ERG are in the PM, they are unlikely to back any deal that fails to satisfy the DUP. Tonight, Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds headed in to No.10 for yet another meeting. Beforehand, Foster said that some of speculation about the shape of the deal is “so far off the mark you can’t see the mark”. Afterwards, they stressed there were still gaps to be closed.

That’s a valuable reality check. According to some speculation about the deal, the DUP are being asked to sign up to an effective customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. This is something that Theresa May famously said in February 2018 that “no UK Prime Minister could ever agree to”. Foster herself said that particular red line was “blood red”.

And although the DUP have smudged that blood line by engaging in talks about a customs alternative, No.10 knows it can’t get them to adopt a rebadged version of the ‘Northern Ireland-only backstop’ pushed by the EU. Such a backstop, however disguised by linguistic rebranding, wouldn’t be May’s deal dressed in a Boris blond wig. It would be Brussels’ deal boasting Michel Barnier’s own ash-blond thatch.

The key however will be consent and the latest word is that Dublin has backed off its talk of a referendum to replace Stormont’s veto on any Brexit deal. A compromise is in the offing that reassures the DUP it will every four years have a real say.

So if Johnson can somehow unlock the consent of Belfast, Dublin, the ERG and Brussels, can he gain the consent of the last bit of the jigsaw, Labour MPs? If all Tories back him, he still needs a handful of Labour MPs to get to his magic 320 figure for a bare majority. If some Tory hardliners refuse, he needs more Labour rebels.

Which is where Jeremy Corbyn comes in. I’m told that there are now nine Labour backbenchers who are so fed up with the delays that they will vote for ‘any Brexit deal’.

But if Johnson offers some red meat to Tory Brexiteers in the political declaration (the future relations with the EU), in the form of Singapore-style freedoms to cut workers rights, Corbyn would be duty bound to oppose it with a three-line whip. He would then come under huge pressure to remove the whip from those nine Labour MPs, ensuring they can’t stand as party candidates in the coming election. That’s a very high price few will want to pay.

Corbyn is a big fan of American linguist and theorist Noam Chomsky, who co-wrote a book, ‘Manufacturing Consent’, on how politicians get into and stay in power. Will Johnson now manufacture consent for his plans by stepping back from the Singapore model? Could he even surprise some by giving Stephen Kinnock, Lisa Nandy and their colleagues pledges on workers’ rights? That could get him not just over the line, but give him a decent working majority he needs for the legislation.

One senior figure in government told me tonight that a note of caution was needed after what they saw as spin from Brussels that a deal was imminent. “People are getting a bit over-excited, which is what the EU wants.” There are still hurdles in both London and Brussels, though negotiators will be working late into the night to try to come up with that text.

That first Great Brexit Bake-Off deadline isn’t far away. Will the technical challenge be followed by a signature dish and then the showstopper of an actual Brexit deal, even if it comes a little late? Or will we finally discover this is a PM who really can’t have his cake and eat it? Not long to find out.

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