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Wednesday 9 October 2019

It’s hard to believe, but after the epic fallout in relations between London and EU capitals yesterday, it looks like a deal is on.

The Times reports as an alternative to Boris’s proposal, the EU is prepared to incorporate a “Stormont lock” into the existing withdrawal treaty.

In 2025 – the same year Northern Ireland can decide whether to leave the EU’s regulatory zone under Boris’s plan – the province’s assembly will be given the option of “unilateral revocation” of the Withdrawal Agreement.

The scoop comes 24 hours after it was revealed Angela Merkel told Boris it was inconceivable under any exit treaty for Northern Ireland to leave either the Customs Union or the Single Market, only the mainland could go, confirming long-held suspicions of the Irish backstop’s real purpose. Merkel’s compatriot, former European Commission secretary general Martin Selmayr is reported to have once said Northern Ireland is “the price to pay for Brexit”. Naturally, the DUP were outraged, see below.   

Donald Tusk didn’t help the situation, tweeting, “what’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game. At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis?”

And yet, if the Times is correct, Merkel’s threat bares no teeth and Tusk’s outrage is overblown. Although that doesn’t mean to say we’re out of the woods, there is no guarantee the DUP will be in a position in 2025 to force through Northern Ireland’s exit from the Single Market. Besides, the Withdrawal Agreement’s deficiencies go way beyond the backstop. £39bn, need we say more.

Boris’s chat with Merkel precipitated this now infamous briefing from Number 10 warning the EU the Tories would have no alternative but to campaign on a No deal Platform at the oncoming general election. The FT reports the briefing caused outrage among MPs.

“At least 50 colleagues could not back no-deal, including several in the cabinet, said one minister. “there has to be at least a nod to getting a deal,” said another.

Meanwhile, the Times reports cabinet ministers Nicky Morgan, Julian Smith, Robert Buckland, Matt Hancock and Geoffrey Cox are on a “resignation watch list” after kicking off about the briefing. It is not for the cabinet to make interventions of that magnitude, they argue. Fair point.

The glimmer of hope for a deal with a Stormont lock will therefore bring about a huge sigh of relief in Downing Street, but the EU has flattered to deceive in the past. The Irish Taoiseach told RTE yesterday “it’s going to be very difficult to secure an agreement by next week, quite frankly.”

Leo Varadkar tempered those comments somewhat, saying his government would “certainly until the very last moment.”

So what’s it gonna be?