Boris Johnson and his increasingly superfluous rival Jeremy Hunt have told the final hustings of the contest that the only exit deal they will sign is one with the backstop removed. Not time-limited, subject to a unilateral exit: removed.
Of course, in many ways it simply underlines the central problem of the Conservative approach to the negotiations. You can’t maintain the status quo on the Irish border – the achievement and maintenance of which has been a central strategic priority of both political parties for more than three decades – without keeping Northern Ireland within the customs and regulatory orbit of Ireland and by extension within the rest of the European Union.
In addition to the importance of that objective to the British government – or at least, to every British government before June 2016 – it is vitally important to the Irish government. Whatever the complexion of the government in Dublin, there is no hope or prospect of an exit deal being reached that doesn’t guarantee the status quo on the Irish border.
The backstop – which, don’t forget, was a British diplomatic success, far in excess of what European officials wanted to give – extends that customs and regulatory orbit across the whole of the United Kingdom. Now the Conservative Party doesn’t want it and any arrangement which keeps Northern Ireland in the customs and regulatory orbit of the EU while cleaving it off from the rest of the EU is unacceptable to their coalition partners the DUP.
That, as Bruno Waterfield writes at the Times, Steve Barclay, the current Brexit secretary and a supporter of Johnson, told Michel Barnier five times that the withdrawal agreement is “dead” underlines yet further that the trajectory of the government is towards a no-deal Brexit.
That ought to make the parliamentary opponents of no deal’s lives a great deal easier. What scuppered Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to take control of the legislative agenda was that while ten Conservative MPs rebelled, many perennial dissidents sat on their hands in hope of a deal, and more Labour MPs than usual rebelled in order to back the withdrawal agreement for a fourth time. That they look highly unlikely to be given another opportunity to do so means that the majority to stop no deal may be alive again.
But the problem is that just because the majority exists in theory doesn’t mean that there are any remaining opportunities for that majority to exert itself. A no-deal exit may now be inevitable.