A final EU-UK agreement was meant to happen this month to allow 27 EU governments as well as the European Parliament to approve or reject the deal. However, the chances of the 15 October EU Council meeting having anything much to discuss and decide on Brexit are now small to non-existent.
Johnson of course is a deadline merchant. In his years of daily and weekly journalism he was a legend for never delivering his copy on time. Only at the very last moment or a bit later would the words coming tumbling in.
So too we may have to wait until the last possible moment to see if a deal emerges. It might even suit Johnson to keep the Barnier-Frost show on the road into 2021. The legal problems with that are substantial and it would be a major climb-down by Johnson to keep the UK within the EU framework of rules and regulations , i.e. stay inside the EU de facto if not de jure as the UK has left the formal treaty structure.
Johnson wants or rather does not want four impossible things. He does not want global images of a broken Brexit Britain with 50 km queues at Calais or Dover as thousands of lorries, vans and even car boots are examined to make sure nothing is being imported or exported without the mountains of paperwork required once Britain is outside the EU.
He does not want to give ammunition to Nicola Sturgeon by showing that a southern English Tory Brexit will finally deprive Scottish citizens of any relationship with Europe. This will drive Scottish voters into the hands of the SNP at the Holyrood elections in May and increase the chances of the UK’s break-up.
He does not want to present a gift to Sir Keir Starmer of yet more incompetence and incoherence in Downing Street on top of his disastrous record on handling the pandemic.
Finally, he does not want to climb down, or betray all the hard Brexit MPs, the UKIP fellow-travellers, Daily Telegraph readers or Tories like Lady Sasha Swire who describes in her controversial new diaries how any compromise with Europe was tantamount to treason.
Which of these four impossible positions can Johnson jettison?
The pressure is slowly building up in Britain. Economic actors – road hauliers, City firms, Japanese car plants, the giant chemical industry, all the professional services from lawyers to consultancy firms as well as the universities and creative industries – are expressing alarm about the cut in income and profits if a Brexit based on a total repudiation of the single market and data exchange rules, or on waiting in 50 km queues in Kent or approaching Calais arrives on New Year’s Day.
Yet none of the stars for a satisfactory deal seem be in alignment. Will they fall into place by Halloween or even by December when we will know if the (relatively) pro-EU Joe Biden is the new US president?
Johnson’s problem is that almost any workable deal will be a major defeat and humiliation for those who promised Brexit would usher in a bright new future for Britain. He knows he is in a Brexit hole. Does he keep digging?
Ten pointers to a deal
So here are ten points which suggest a deal is growing more likely in contrast to mid-year when the Brexit commentariat in the UK was very pessimistic and predicting a No Deal or WTO crash-out.
1) The UK’s Brexit negotiator, (Lord) David Frost has been instructed to say the UK will honour its European Convention/Court of Justice Human Rights obligations which Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in particular opposed. There is Tory ultras’ support for leaving the ECHR but the EU says if that remains HMG policy there is no question of an agreement on data exchange. UK police, counter-terrorist and intelligence agencies have warned publicly that losing access to EU data on border crossings, criminal DNA records etc would severely damage UK anti-terror and crime fighting capabilities. So Johnson has done a U-turn and told Frost to accept EU demands to abide by ECHR conventions and rulings.
2) A deal on state aid is now likely. We spend 1/5th of maximum state aid possible under existing EU rules so the UK could increase state aid to £61bn and still be within EU rules. In effect Covid has torn up orthodox EU fiscal policy as all governments are going to be borrowing and spending very generously over the next decade or so to rebuild their economies.
3) Fishing: some live and let fish compromise is necessary before Britain launches an unwinnable fish war with the continent. The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is no longer the racket it was when Britain joined the EEC in 1973. It is now mainly about conserving fish stocks which is as important to British fishing skippers as their continental comrades.
The British proposal for a three-year continuation of the existing status quo is already a move away from previous demands that all non-UK fishing boats are expelled from UK waters. Lengthen that with a review clause and a guarantee that anything landed in the UK will have automatic tariff and quota free access to European markets and we might get somewhere.
4) There is a real panic amongst road hauliers that there will be major blockages in Kent where 10,000 lorries arrive every day bringing 85 % of fresh fruit and veg and 60 % of all bacon, sausages and ham we eat. The other strong pro-Brexit man in the government, Michael Gove, has publicly talked of queues of 7,000 lorries. Very few of the estimated 50-60,000 customs agents needed to fill in forms have been hired. I went to speak at a protest meeting over a giant site for a major lorry park on the edge of Ashford (Kent) to take up to 5,000 lorries with testosterone charged drivers hanging around waiting to clear customs. This is not popular in Tory shires.
5) In two recent news items Bloomberg reported 25% of all investment funds in the City have relocated. JP Morgan has moved 200 staff to Germany to become Germany’s 6th biggest bank. The loss to British tax revenue of these high-paid jobs going to EU capitals is substantial. Secondly, Nissan and Toyota said they would expect compensation from HMG if tariffs were imposed implying these were promised by May. Again this is a very big cost to taxpayer. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak and his Treasury team must be tearing out hair on what Brexit is costing on top of Covid. Business and economic actors have lost all enthusiasm for Brexit.
6) Gove, the only cabinet member with an independent brain and voice, has briefed that he is worried that a crash-out Brexit would further strengthen the nationalist vote in Scotland giving the SNP a big majority in the May 2021 elections. Sturgeon would then have a mandate to insist on a second referendum on independence. Polls in Scotland now show a majority for independence and breaking away from English rule. Does Johnson want to be a PM who has to tell Her Majesty, 95 next year, she is no longer Queen of a United Kingdom and he has lost Scotland?
7) A new poll shows 50 % now think Brexit was a wrong decision and only 39% think it was a good decision. This is not about rejoining or re-voting but the enthusiasm for breaking links with Europe is evaporating. Cabinet ministers are toning down anti-EU rhetoric. Even the old die-hards like John Redwood, Norman Lamont, David Davis, or Steve Baker are relatively silent. They have won the fight to leave the EU Treaty but most serious Tory MPs know we need a friendly, open-for-business relationship with the EU. The public political condemnation of the Internal Market Bill which openly states the UK will break international law and treaty obligations has sparked the biggest wave of anti-UK declarations from EU ministers, ambassadors, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and key MEPs ever seen against the UK government since 2016. But the European Court of Justice is now seized of the new Act and the chances of it being ever fully operational are slim.
8) If the broadly pro-EU Biden wins that will increase pressure on Johnson for a deal. Trump praised Johnson on his return to the White House after falling ill with Covid. Praise from Donald Trump is not popular in UK. 2016 saw the birth of the Brexit/Johnson-Trump Siamese twin sired by nationalist, populist, anti-immigrant prejudices. If the Trump half of the Siamese twin is sawn off by US voters, the left-over Brexit/Johnson half will be much weaker.
9) Johnson has been much enfeebled by his confused, contradictory handling of Covid. He is openly attacked by Tory MPs representing their small businesses especially town centre and non-industrial SMEs that cannot survive with early closures, limits on people gathering, and other measures imposed by central government diktat with no debate in Parliament. The public and Tory MPs sense no grip or control from the Prime Minister. If some mechanism could be found to put off the worst impact of Brexit they would reluctantly accept that.
10) The Labour Opposition under Sir Keir Starmer refuses to engage in any Brexit debate but simply calls on the PM to deliver a “good deal for Britain that protects the environment, animal rights, and worker rights”. But other than that Labour says it is all in the hands of the prime minister. Johnson and Tory MPs can see the trap being set. A crash out No Deal/WTO Brexit with queues, shortages, maybe rationing, and endless uncertainty is a disastrous beginning to his second full year in office and will encourage the growing Tory press voices saying he cannot win the next general election.
There is no win for Johnson in going for a hard Brexit. How he u-turns remains to be seen. But he is the artist of the political pirouette and has never been faithful to a policy, or belief other than his own advancement in three decades of political activism. The majority of Tory (and other MPs) plus public and press opinion would welcome a compromise deal including putting off some difficult decisions to a post-Covid era and continuing ad interim in some areas with existing status quo arrangements. For EU legal purists in Brussels and anti-EU hardline ideologues in London this may not be acceptable but if words and legal formulae can be found – and they can – the signals for a compromise are more positive than a few weeks or months ago. After all the braggadocio twelve months ago this will be a major climb-down by Johnson. But it he wants to survive and lead the government through 2021 it may be his best course of action.