Is Boris Johnson’s attempt at a renegotiation with Brussels over before it’s even begun? Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, has warned the new Prime Minister that there can be no change to Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. Meanwhile Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has told European diplomats that Johnson’s demands for a new deal are “unacceptable”.
Having used his first appearance at the despatch box to declare the current deal dead (again) and restate his demand for the Irish border backstop to be removed completely from any agreement he reached with the EU (again), Johnson was always going to receive this sort of welcome from Brussels: he is demanding something that all 27 governments, and particularly Ireland, have said repeatedly that they will not give.
Johnson knows that; Brussels knows that; Dublin knows that; and Tory MPs know that. There is no chance that the EU will take him up on his invitation to discuss a replacement to the backstop whenever they like. So, what’s the point? The strategy is as much about convincing Europe that the Prime Minister is willing not only to take Britain out of the EU without a deal, but blame them for it.
The government that Johnson has built is a mark of his commitment to that gambit: gone are opponents of no-deal and Jeremy Hunt, and in are committed Brexiteers. His new ministerial team at the Foreign Office, for instance, is now made up entirely of Leavers. But it doesn’t follow that the EU calculation will change, too: instead, Brussels looks a Commons that has repeatedly voted to reject the principle of no-deal, it looks at sacked ministers like Stephen Hammond, who lost his job yesterday, and it concludes that the balance of probabilities is that parliament will ultimately do its thing and thwart Johnson.
It’s a dynamic that leaves Johnson in a tricky position: the EU has even less of an incentive to move than ever, and his insistence that he wants a deal sounds less and less convincing to those MPs he needs not to take action to stop no-deal. And as of last night there is another problem: the hardest Brexiteers. First Steve Baker, the leader of the Eurosceptics who voted against May’s deal three times, turned down a job as Brexit minister in Johnson’s government in protest at Downing Street’s control of negotiations. Then Mark Francois, his sidekick, warned that the group would vote against the deal even if the backstop is removed – a backlash that was always inevitable after the hiring of Dominic Cummings, who hardliners suspect of wanting to revive the deal in some form.
That not only shows that Johnson is unlikely to get any Brexit outcome past this parliament, but it also gives the lie to a theory gaining traction in Westminster: that all he needs to do to win a snap election is get Brexit done, or, in the event that he’s forced to go to the country before that, present himself as a victim of Brussels and gobble up the Brexit Party’s real estate on the right. But it increasing looks like his is a parliamentary party whose respective fringes won’t let him get Brexit done, and will punish him in parliament and on the airwaves if he does it with a deal. In either scenario the cries of Brexit betrayal would continue to ring loud – and that is not the background noise a Johnson election campaign needs.