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Wednesday 2 October 2019

The EU is contemplating its next move after Boris Johnson yesterday unveiled his alternative to the Irish backstop. The noises are that the EU is unimpressed and with the Surrender Act denying Boris the leverage of a No Deal “cliff edge” (to use a Remainer term) can afford to say no.

Even though Boris’s final offer probably isn’t final at all, EU leaders will be inclined to take it seriously. If someone, possibly John Bercow, is sent to Brussels on the PM’s behalf to beg for an extension, an election will soon follow. So long as the Tories get their act together and form an accommodation with the Brexit Party, there’s no reason to believe Parliament won’t return a stronger pro-Leave government, which will seek to push a harder bargain.

Even if the opposite occurs, and somehow a fragile Remain coalition is formed, the EU will be faced with a useless government to work with. Pro-Remain Labour will seek to go through the tortuous rigmarole of an exit deal that they will then advocate against at a referendum. What sane-minded national government would be tempted by that prospect, and it’s not just us Brits who are sick of this charade dragging on, squeezing out important issues like law and order, health and industrial policy.

But that’s not to say what Boris has put on the table is anything to write home about, it borrows heavily from Theresa May’s dreadful deal – which, lest we forget, Boris voted for at the third time of asking. However, it provides a chink of light to a future completely outside of the EU, a massive difference from May’s negotiation. It achieves this by basically lumping the border dilemma onto the Northern Irish.

Under Boris’s proposals, the province will be “marooned” – to quote an EU official – between a regulatory zone on the British mainland and the EU’s common customs area.  The whole of the United Kingdom would leave the Customs Union after the transition period arranged by Mrs May ends in 2021, from that point onwards, mainland UK would be permitted to deviate from EU regulations meaning checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from other parts of Britain would require checks. Essentially, the British part of Ireland will remain in the EEA (Norway) while the rest of the United Kingdom forges ahead with a Canadian-style arrangement.

The government recognises this set up isn’t sustainable, after four years Stormont will decide which orbit it will rotate out of, Britain’s or the EU’s. It’s an ugly arrangement for the Ulster Unionists although the DUP are thought to have secured the final say as a condition of their support.

EU regulations would only continue to apply on agricultural and industrial goods, not horizontal rules on the environment and employment applying to nearly every single organisation operating in the bloc. They lie at the heart of the project. VAT contributions to the EU budget would also be ceased.

It looks like these are the low hanging fruit Brussels will look to take back if Boris’s plan is taken seriously. The PM has described his pitch as a “fair and reasonable compromise”, but the EU will look for more concessions. They had a very happy experience with May and will fancy their chances with her successor. Don’t be surprised, if along the lines of May’s last humungous compromise, the entire UK remains tied to the EU’s regulatory regime until 2025, essentially, Boris is lining up a convoluted time limit on the backstop. A paradigm shift this is not. On top of the transition period, the £39bn will still be handed over.

And while Boris is wagering the EU will be tempted he also believes, rightly that the British public want this sorry business done with.

“I am afraid that after three and a half years people are beginning to feel that they are being taken for fools,” Boris will say in his conference speech today. “They are beginning to suspect that there are forces in this country that simply don’t want Brexit delivered at all. And if they turn out to be right in that suspicion then I believe there will be grave consequences for trust in democracy.”

YouGov have discovered the prime minister’s stock among Leavers has risen considerably. He is recognised by both Leavers and Remainers as committed to Brexit. The strong rhetoric has given him license to only tinker with the backstop rather than banishing it as he had promised, but at least we’re making progress. 

The ball is in the EU’s court.