2 Oct 2019

Brexit proposal sinking on launch?

Tory faithful were queuing outside the conference hall from 8am to hear the man they’d elected two months ago to lead them. That’s three and a half hours of queuing.

They were rewarded with a strangely passionless affair: more jokes, less conviction. Boris Johnson was making a claim for the centre ground of politics with some Blairite policy language. But on the massive boulder in front of any such conversation he gave little away.

If the document now in Brussels is the “final offer” of the UK, as the overnight briefing said, the Prime Minister didn’t choose to use that phrase. He slightly belittled the EU’s potential objections to his offer, saying if they did reject it they would be doing so on a technical point on future customs arrangements. He was, he said, ready to press the “no deal” button in those circumstances. Will that button work? We’ll come come back to that.

The word from EU sources is that the new proposal doesn’t look like it’s going to make it into the famed “tunnel” – that’s the secret, detailed negotiating format reserved for EU endgame negotiations.

Instead there could be exploratory talks checking out how hard the UK lines are. Everyone is mindful of the blame game that will swiftly follow if talks fail and wants to minimise their exposure.

Simon Coveney has already today said on behalf of the Irish government that what they’ve seen doesn’t look like good news for the chances of a deal (Dublin was briefed yesterday by Sir Ed Lister, Boris Johnson’s adviser alongside no. 10 recruit Prof John Bew, Attlee’s biographer).

We are still waiting for the detail of the UK proposal to be formally unveiled but first indications from other EU capitals are that the chances of agreement with the EU are extremely low. Some in Brussels suggest that we could get a flat “no” as soon as the weekend, though that may be deemed unhelpful as neither side wants to cop the blame for collapsing these talks.

Visitors to the executive suites floor of the Midland Hotel in Manchester, where the government’s top people held court this week, have been told there is already an expectation that we will soon be in the next phase of this crisis: Boris Johnson refusing  to sign the letter requesting a Brexit delay as required by the Benn Act.

No. 10 sources say that they then expect that issue to go to the High Court on 21st October and the Supreme Court a couple of days later. (The government’s favoured date for a general election is said to be 28th November – there is “a real keenness” not to have an election in December, no. 10 sources have said.)

The top of government sounds, for all the public rhetoric about “progress” in talks with the EU, braced for a different outcome.

Maybe the clues to the viability of the Johnson plan were in our face all week in the form of the conference slogan: Get Brexit Done. As an election slogan, it kind of assumes you haven’t got it done yet.

Likewise, “Surrender Act” is an unlikely slogan to be putting centre stage in an election if you think it’ll have been cunningly circumvented and an irrelevance that proved no obstacle to a No-Deal Brexit on 31st October.

Would they still work in an election on, say, 28th November?

Get Brexit Done or, as some might see it, get Brexit off the telly, would not truly be achieved even if Boris Johnson won a majority in two months time. It would be on the telly for some time to come.

But compared to Jeremy Corbyn’s offer of a second referendum, the Prime Minister’s “Get Brexit Done” offer has more plausible cut through and matches many public perceptions of how easy it could all be if only someone was decisive. It’s a much easier political sell. The only comparable offer of “getting Brexit off the telly” is the Lib Dems’ “revoke” offer.

The Downing Street core team has not completely given up on “cheating” the Benn Act, as the FT reports today. The team talks about how the Benn Act only requires “one specifically designed duty” (the writing of a letter requesting a Brexit delay) on a certain day and how that doesn’t preclude other actions (which would presumably be calculated to put the EU right off any idea of having the UK hanging around in their meetings for several more months). The other calculation talked about is how the EU deals government to government and won’t want to take dictation from Parliament.

Would the EU refuse a delay and in what circumstances? Senior figures in the Commission have conducted an audit of the decisions coming up in the European Council in the coming months. They have decided that most require majority votes and the UK could not wield a disruptive veto in them. The one unanimous vote needed in coming months is the renewal of sanctions against Russia and they don’t think the UK would feel it could play hardball and veto that.

The EU Budget decisions in June 2020 are the big deadline in their mind and there’s an expectation that the EU will offer a delay if it is requested by the government even if that letter is signed by the Cabinet Secretary, say, or some other individual who is not the Prime Minister. If the PM tries to stop that, and the signature is John Bercow’s, it presents some problems potentially. But the Supreme Court could have instructed a government figure to sign that letter if it comes to consider the matter.

So, given the hostile reception to the Boris Johnson plan in Brussels and Dublin, given the difficulties of getting around the Benn Act, we could be looking at Boris Johnson leading the Tories into a general election in which he is asking the electorate to vote Conservative to deliver Brexit when the party has failed, yet again, to do just that.

But Boris Johnson’s credentials as a man who tried everything to get the UK out may, by that time, have been so burnished that only the diehard Brexit Party supporters can’t see him as on their side.

He might be about to have his grand proposal thrown back in his face by the EU. He might follow up his failure to get an early election, his failure to get a 5 week prorogation, his failure to head off the Benn Bill with a failure to defy or “cheat” the Benn Act. But the man with the comic touch might still, aides think, get the last laugh in a highly charged election in which the country “is polarising” – no small thanks to him exploiting what aides say is  ” deep, deep hate for Parliament” out there amongst the voters.

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