Richard North, 05/10/2019  

Eighteen hours after I remarked on the speed at which Johnson's mad plan seemed to be unravelling, we have the Guardian making what amounts to a statement of the bleedin' obvious, as it reports that Johnson's Brexit plans "look to be falling apart", with the Daily Mail using the same line.

Anything more, you might say, is simply detail, but what a lot of detail there is, not least of which is the Anglophile Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte saying that the UK proposal "at best" could form a basis for further discussions. They raised "many questions" Rutte said. "We can't simply say 'yes' to them".

That is seriously bad news for Johnson as the only way he was going to come away with a deal in time for the October European Council was if the "colleagues" rolled over and gave him what he wanted. And that, clearly, ain't going to happen.

What got the Guardian excited, alongside dozens of other media titles, was the response of the Commission to a request from David Frost to conduct "intensive negotiations" over the weekend. Frost, it appears, along with a team of a dozen British officials, had failed to convince their EU counterparts that they had a mandate from Downing Street to compromise on what the EU saw as major flaws in the proposals on the table.

Frost, we are told, had been seeking to rescue Johnson's proposed deal after it had been heavily criticised from many different quarters, but the Commission wasn't having it. A spokeswoman said: "We have completed discussions with the UK for today. We gave our initial reaction to the UK's proposals and asked many questions on the legal text".

The plan is to meet again on Monday, when the UK will be given "another opportunity to present its proposals in detail". But, in line with Rutte's comment, the spokeswoman added that the proposals did not "provide a basis for concluding an agreement".

In a damning indictment of Johnson's initiative, an EU official said that the UK often asked for meetings to keep [the] process going. On the part of the EU, they agreed that no stone should be left unturned. But, he said, "there is nothing useful that could be done this weekend".

One of those ever-helpful anonymous "senior EU diplomats" then pitched in to tell us that: "If we held talks at the weekend, it would look like these were proper negotiations. The truth is we're still a long way from that. We need to work out quickly whether there is the opportunity to close that gap".

That was more or less confirmed by still more anonymous sources, their collective view being that the EU would not pretend to negotiate when there appeared to be doubt over any basis for progress.

Caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea, Johnson also had to contend with another Scottish court action, this one seeking to force him to comply with the Benn Act.

Faced with the possibility that non-compliance could be deemed a contempt of court and possible incarceration, the prime minister in office had his lawyers tell the court that, in the event of a no-deal by the 19 October, he would send a letter applying for a time extension.

Yet, within hours of that assurance being given, Johnson was back in action, denying that he would delay Brexit, doubling down on his commitment to a Brexit on 31 October, reiterating: "New deal or no deal – but no delay".

To resolve the apparent contradiction, it seems that Johnson has another trick up his sleeve, reaching out to the Hungarian government for assurances that it would veto any request for a delay.

This could possibly work. A government source says that Hungary's premier, Viktor Orbán, was the "most sympathetic [EU leader] to our cause". But there are those in Brussels who believe that Hungary would not break ranks with the other member states due to fears of reprisal.

That, as always, leaves Johnson distinctly short of options. His officials privately admit that Brussels is likely to "salami slice" the latest proposal, before pronouncing that time is too short for an agreement in time for the European Council.

It takes no brains, though, to work that one out, but the smart money in Brussels apparently expects Johnson to go for the time extension and then call an election after 31 October – assuming he can get parliament to agree. Some EU diplomats then believe a British election could lead to a second referendum and ultimately a reversal of the 2016 "leave" vote.

However, it will not be easy to predict the result of a general election – and the strategy could backfire. Faced with a rampant Farage, Johnson might need to go hard-on no-deal Brexit, in which case we could conceivably end up with a new parliament committed to the worst of all the possible "leave" options.

Despite all that, it may not get that far. The "Second" Cummings is saying that, if Brussels refuses to compromise, then the UK would leave the EU without a deal, exploiting potential loopholes in the Benn Act to circumvent the requirement to seek a time extension.

Some of this, though, may be political posturing. If Johnson does have to apply for an extension, and we remain in the EU while a general election is underway, he will want to be seen to be putting up a fight. That way he can play the victim card, and perhaps neutralise some of the political fallout that will come with him resiling from his "do or die" promise.

One way or another, we will probably see some clarity by the time the General Affairs Council meets on 15 October. Although Cummings is saying that, if we don't get anything next week, "we are gone", resting on the assumption that the EU will say "no", Barnier is far too astute to allow his side to fall prey to that Armageddon scenario.

For as long as he can – along with the Member States – Barnier will not formally reject Johnson's proposal. Instead, he will hold out the prospect of a deal just over the horizon, as long as talks continue. That will make it difficult to walk away when the glittering prize of a deal seems so close, or to blame the EU for failure to reach a resolution.

Of course, such a stance rests on the assumption that the EU is prepared to go the extra mile (or kilometre) in pursuing a deal. There must be a limit to the patience of the EU's negotiators, and the tolerance of the Member States and the EU's institutions for the continued uncertainty.

And if the UK side is capable of delivering ultimatums, so must be the EU. Already, it has taken a relatively robust line over the timetabling of the current talks, so it would not be too much stretch for the European Council to make any time extension conditional on the UK delivering a "legally operable" solution, thereby bringing the Article 50 process to an end when the UK fails to come up with the goods.

To that extent, it is not only Johnson's proposal which is falling apart. His strategy (handed down to him by Cummings) also seems fragile. The EU could end up surprising us all.

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