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13 September 2019

Has Boris Johnson made a breakthrough in the Brexit talks?

You can just about see the landing zone for a rebadged withdrawal agreement that, if you squint hard enough, looks like a victory for Johnson.

By Stephen Bush

The DUP has agreed to countenance a regulatory border in the Irish Sea in some circumstances, reports Oliver Wright in the Times – although the story has been denied by Arlene Foster, the party’s leader, albeit in a somewhat cryptic fashion. 

The news comes as the government desperately looks for a Plan B (if you think that the no-deal posture was about securing an election) or Plan C (if you think that the government’s first preference was to leave without a deal on 31 October). And, of course, the only negotiable deal that doesn’t include a UK-wide backstop is one that puts further regulatory barriers in the Irish Sea.

You can just about see the landing zone for a rebadged withdrawal agreement that, if you squint hard enough, looks like a victory for Boris Johnson. The Conservative Party’s preferred unity position: that border checks be facilitated by alternative arrangements and that checks take place in a “de-dramatised” fashion away from the border. However, the second you look at a map of Northern Ireland – and if you assume, not unfairly, that any constituency presently represented by a Sinn Féin MP is not an appropriate location for a “de-dramatised” border check – you realise that a low-key, de-dramatised check away from the border….is taking place in the Irish Sea, if it is taking place anywhere.

There is, just about, a way that Johnson could find a “new” deal by signing up to something that is essentially the backstop by any other name, and hoping that his credibility as That Brexit Guy means that he can carry his party.

The problem is that his credibility as That Brexit Guy makes it harder for Labour MPs to back a deal struck by him. It’s always been easy to find enough Labour MPs who privately want the deal to go through to make the numbers add up in parliament – but the number of Labour MPs who have been willing to move from low-cost signals like writing pained articles about how it is all very difficult to high-cost actions actually voting for the deal has, thus far, been low.

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It’s far from clear that number will ever be high enough to pass a deal – but for Johnson, the mood music of going to the country having agreed to anything that can look like he has made some progress on the position he inherited from Theresa May is surely an upgrade to one in which his only record is one of parliamentary defeat.

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