Richard North, 13/10/2019  

In the absence of firm information or official statements, it is extremely difficult to be certain of where we stand with the Brexit talks which are said to have continued through yesterday and are set for another long session today.

If there were first prizes for media hubris, though, the winner would undoubtedly be The Sunday Telegraph which talks of "Great Britain" being able "to exit the single market and the customs union, and to be able to diverge from all EU rules and regulations: a full, clean Brexit".

As far as Northern Ireland goes, there would be "a compromise solution" which would allow the province to take part in UK trade deals and be legally out of the customs union. Miraculously, it would maintain an open border with the Republic, alongside some form of ongoing democratic consent mechanism.

This, in the view of the ST, "would be far better practically, legally and philosophically for unionists and Brexiteers than a Northern Ireland-only backstop".

The result would not be "perfect" and, surprisingly enough, "the devil will be in the detail", where the onus is "on Mr Johnson not to stray from the principles of self-government and democratic control he so brilliantly expounded during the referendum".

The paper is in no doubt that, if the talks are evolving as we believe, the result looks to be "a real Brexit for Great Britain, with a settlement for Northern Ireland that genuinely hopes to satisfy all sides".

Needless to say, the devil always lies in the detail and while No 10 officials point out that none of the pundits know the full details of the proposed deal, the speculation of what it might contain is enough to have DUP deputy leader, Nigel Dodds fulminating that the proposed deal "cannot work".

The cause of his grief, apparently, is that Johnson is said to be ready to "shaft" the North (as in Northern Ireland), by reverting to the idea of a "wet" border in the Irish Sea. This means that there will be customs controls imposed on goods from Great Britain entering the province, in order to avoid checks on the Irish land border.

Dodds is insisting that the North should be fully within the UK's customs union, with his party refusing to accept any changes in the status of relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Despite recent comments from Arlene Foster (pictured with Dodds), which appeared to support Johnson's deal, the party is consistent, it says, in demanding that the UK leaves the EU as one nation and "in so doing that no barriers to trade are erected within the UK".

Assuming that the DUP's "take" on Johnson's deal is correct – and we have no means of knowing – it is relevant to ask whether the party still has sufficient political leverage to block any deal it doesn't like.

Certainly, the party itself is in a difficult position if it endorses a deal that other Unionists can cast as a "betrayal", using this to damage their electoral standing.

But, it seems, the UK government has more to worry about than the finer sensibilities of the DUP. Johnson, we are told, is "desperate" for a deal because security chiefs have convinced him that no-deal Brexit would lead to an upsurge in terrorism by dissident republican groups.

This comes from The Sunday Times, which employs another of those wondrous anonymous sources – one "familiar with the warnings" – to tell us that there was a danger of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and on the mainland, as well as sectarian violence in cities such as Glasgow.

We are informed of a "recent conversation" with a senior Conservative, which covered the implications of no-deal on Northern Ireland and disruption in England, when it is claimed that Johnson said: "Any one of these risks we could cope with, but taken collectively they would be a massive challenge to the UK state and no one would choose to go down that route".

Some might argue that there is a certain shallowness in that assessment, in that a solution which angers the Unionists could, of itself, trigger sectarian violence, pulling in the Republicans and triggering a full-blown replica of the Troubles. With Northern Ireland, it is never wise to take sentiment for granted.

Nevertheless, as has been pointed out, with the devil lying in the detail and no detail available, there is only so far speculation can take us. And even this may be moot as a "senior EU source" is said to be describing the chances of a deal at the European Council as "50-50", while a British government official is said to be claiming that they were "on a knife edge".

As long as the talks in Brussels go on, however, they are buying Johnson respite from the worst his critics have to offer. But all good things must come to an end and, by 5pm this evening, Barnier is due to give "EU Ambassadors" a briefing on progress so far. Saturday saw an almost unique level of security, with not a single leak escaping the talks, but Barnier will be talking to a leaky ship, and we are bound to get some intimation of where the talks stand within a matter of hours of the briefing.

The following day (Monday) Johnson will have domestic matters to attend to, as he will be attending the Queen's Speech, but he then plans to speak to Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Claude Juncker. These contacts will take place in the next two days, when we are told that Johnson's message will be: "Let's finish this off".

He is, it is said, ready to offer EU leaders "a historic grand bargain on Brexit" - help deliver "his new deal" this week or agree a no-deal Brexit for 31 October, presumably by refusing his forced application for an Article 50 extension.

It remains to be seen whether any of these players will intervene, but the likelihood is that they will take their lead from Barnier on whether to accept the deal – assuming the European Council is disposed to accept any deal at this coming meeting. It still seems far more likely that, if they feel a deal might be in the offing, the Council will offer an extension that will take us past 31 October, so that formal negotiations can take place.

However, if the "colleagues" collectively are coming to the view that Johnson's last hurrah is going nowhere, they may be disposed to consider whether to reject an extension application.

To that extent, Johnson may have queered his own pitch, in being so strident about blaming the EU for any failure to do a deal. The Council will be conscious of the potential for bad publicity in the event that they are seen to be pulling the plug. If the UK wants the Council to cast it adrift, therefore, it will need to find a formula which allows for what is, effectively seen as a "no-fault Brexit".

Yet, for Johnson, that has its own drawbacks. Given the expected adverse consequences of a no-deal, being able to blame the EU for our troubles becomes an important part of the narrative. If we part on an ostensibly amicable "no-fault" basis – with Johnson winning a subsequent general election (which looks possible), his administration will be open to taking the full blame for the trauma that follows.

This could present the prime minister in office with an unfortunate paradox. In order to exit on the 31 October with a no-deal, he is going to have to make nice with the "colleagues", yet to escape blame for the effects he needs to be at odds with the EU, conveying the impression that his "reasonable and constructive" offer has been refused.

In any event though, Johnson is hardly in control. Although he will be attempting to focus on domestic issues after the Queen's Speech on Monday, if his "new deal" is known to be dead in the water by then, he will find it hard to keep the opposition benches focused on his agenda.

Bearing in mind that, traditionally, votes against the Queen's Speech are taken as votes of confidence, the prime minister in office could find himself facing a vote that could trigger a general election on his hands, even as he wings his way to Brussels for the European Council.

It would then remain for the "colleagues" to agree to any formal application for an extension, thereby presenting Johnson with the worst of all possible scenarios when he goes to the country without having taken us out of the EU. And even if such an election is winnable, the outcome would still be uncertain.

One way or another, there is a lot riding on this week, and rarely has our immediate political future been so opaque.

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