Richard North, 01/10/2019  

This would not be the first time a Tory conference has been derailed by allegations of sexual misconduct. Those of us with longer memories will recall the 1983 conference when Cecil Parkinson, then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry - a married father of three - was forced to resign after it had been revealed that his former secretary, Sara Keays, was pregnant with his child.

Now, having elected Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a serial liar, a philanderer and sexual incontinent to the post of party leader and prime minister, we have Tories whingeing that the media is focusing on the sexual activities of a man who has enough skeletons in the cupboard to fill the Verdun ossuary, thus distracting attention from the current conference programme.

Given that Johnson has made his political fame and fortune out of personality politics, with the focus on his eccentric personality, those Tories must be remarkably thick if they believe that the media, given the gift of a nice juicy groping story – to say nothing of the festering sore of the Arcuri affair – are suddenly going to "play the ball and not the man", obligingly devoting their energies exclusively to reporting the policy agenda.

Unsurprisingly, the media is not even confining its attention to Johnson's peccadillos – especially the left-wing press which has become obsessed with the Cummings saga, treating Johnson's chief of staff as if he was a reincarnation of the devil (which he could very well be). As a result, we are doubly entertained by a tale of an "atmosphere of feuding" in No 10.

A nugget to emerge from that story is a Tory special adviser telling the Guardian that there is a feeling that Cummings is "out of control" over his pursuit of the prorogation strategy and "his insistence that Brexit could be done by 31 October, regardless of the law blocking a no-deal departure".

In fact, in private briefings with journalists, Cummings has argued there is still space for a deal and asserts that proposals will be taken to Brussels soon.

That one thing – that proposals will soon be on their way to Brussels – is hardly a secret. We are getting multiple press reports that the UK's proposals for replacement of the backstop have been finalised. However, there is a twist to this story. The Telegraph is claiming that the "final plan" will be first delivered "to EU leaders" within the next 24 hours.

This will be done "in a series of calls to EU capitals" ahead of a formal text being delivered to Brussels after Johnson's speech to the Tory conference on Wednesday.

The Independent has picked this up as well, headlining its report: "Brexit: Boris Johnson’s plan to bypass Brussels for new deal", making the intention of the prime minister in office somewhat clearer.

This is Bourbon territory (they who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing), indicating that Johnson has indeed learned nothing and still thinks he can by-pass Barnier and appeal directly to key European leaders.

Thus, we are to see an attempt at a last-ditch charm offensive in the (forlorn) hope that the leaders may be ready to show "flexibility", as opposed to Barnier, who is viewed in Downing Street as "a stickler for rules who will be hard to shift from the deal struck with Theresa May last year".

Plans were even made to fly Johnson to the funeral of ex-president Jacques Chirac for talks in the margins with sympathetic leaders. At the last minute, though, it was decided the opportunity did not justify breaking off his attendance at the conference in Manchester.

Nevertheless, any expectation that the formal procedure can be circumvented is insane. And with previous attempts having been rebuffed, you would have thought by now that Johnson would realise that any proposals must go through channels if they are to be considered.

However, with what we know of the UK proposals, it is perhaps unsurprising than an attempt is to be made to bypass Barnier, as the deal on offer would most certainly get a dusty response from the EU's chief negotiator.

There is actually very little new, and most of what is apparently being proposed has already been rejected by EU negotiators. On the table is the all-Ireland SPS zone, covering live animals, foodstuffs and products of animal origin, in the hope that the EU will accept free passage of these goods without the need for border checks.

Even if permitted – and the devil will be in the detail – there is then still the matter of customs controls, which will also apply to general manufactured goods. In the absence of a common customs area, both food and non-food goods would be subject to customs controls.

To that effect, the UK is said to be proposing a chain of customs posts in both territories, but stepped back from the border – although Johnson's "allies" are said to have dismissed the idea that this is to be proposed as "totally untrue".

Should such posts be installed, it is anticipated that there would be "real time tracking" of vehicle movements, using GPS technology, to ensure that they do not stray from approved routing. Shippers would also be required to post financial bonds as surety against default.

For the moment, the exact plan is being kept secret, although we may get some detail from Johnson in his speech to conference on Wednesday. That, at least, seems to be going ahead, as the "rebel alliance" plan of ambushing the Tories with a vote of no confidence seems to have evaporated, having foundered on the vexed question of who would lead the interim government, replacing Johnson as prime minister.

The death knell of Johnson's ambitions for a deal, however, is likely to arise from a very practical issue. Irrespective of whatever merits the plan may have, there is simply not enough time for a complex, legally watertight, bespoke agreement to be drafted and circulated to Member States for their provisional approval, before being submitted to the General Affairs Council on 15 October.

A senior European Union official has suggested that the UK will have little chance of leaving by the 31 October if the text of the deal proposed is substantially different from that agreed with Mrs May. Any new proposal would have to be negotiated with the EU, translated into legal text, win support from the House of Commons, and then get consent from the each of the EU-27's governments. "That’s difficult within 30 days even if it's not a lot different than what's currently on the table", the official says.

With indications that Johnson has in mind far more radical surgery, that would take far more time. "Starting from zero would be seen by the EU as a completely unacceptable way of going about things", the official added.

Even without these problems, though, the idea of customs posts (even set back from the border) – if actually proposed - is likely to be strongly opposed, not only by the EU but specifically by the Irish government.

Perversely, if the parties fail to agree, the result is definitely customs posts on (eventually) both sides of the border, possibly actually on the border. One way or another, it seems Ireland could be heading for at least a semi-hard (or semi-soft) border, regardless of the Brexit outcome.

The only consolation is that it would appear that we will know by the weekend whether a new deal is on the cards. If, as expected, Johnson declares the backstop "dead" in his Wednesday speech, a deal looks unlikely. According to a cabinet minister, "If the EU starts to leak and brief against us, that would be a very bad sign".

But an equally bad sign is the suggestion from The Times that Johnson is asking the EU to rule out a further Article 50 extension as part of his proposed new Brexit deal – another element of illogicality as any deal will take us past 31 October, if agreement is to be had.

All we seem to be getting, therefore, are bad signs, in which event – as Pete avers, all that's left are the consequences.

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