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16 October 2019

Boris Johnson must choose between two types of Brexit failure

The Prime Minister needs to decide whether to accept a proposal he previously rejected or blame his opponents for no deal. 

By Stephen Bush

Is a new(ish) Brexit deal imminent? That’s the word on the street according to several of this morning’s papers, from EU diplomats and among civil servants.

The “new” part would involve putting the customs and regulatory border with the European Union in the Irish Sea – the EU’s original proposal to solve the Irish border question and the private view of some Brexiteers as far back as 2016. It allows a far greater deal of divergence from EU rules for the rest of the United Kingdom and would free a future Conservative government from the obligations that the UK-wide backstop brought upon it on environmental standards, labour market protections and whole host of other regulatory areas. 

While the change to the deal Theresa May brought is superficially small, it is one with major policy and economic concessions. From the perspective of the Conservative Party’s actual policy aims, it sits up and works.

But from a Conservative perspective, so did George Eustice’s proposal in the indicative votes for the UK to stay in the single market but have a customs barrier in the Irish Sea – that would have allowed a post-Brexit UK to strike significant trade deals and would have kept the benefits of the “right-wing” parts of EU membership while freeing it from the “left-wing” obligations on workers’ rights and the movement towards ever-closer union. It got 59 Tory votes – those votes came from across the Conservatives’ Brexit traditions and left-right divides, but they were far short of a majority even within the Tory party, let alone parliament.

This new(ish) solution allows a greater level of divergence at a greater economic cost, but it is one that various big-name Leavers – including Johnson and Dominic Cummings – have made a lot of noise opposing publicly. Not all of them will be willing to come in from the cold, and the DUP’s policy requirements for Brexit – that they do not end up with a situation in which decisions about Northern Ireland are made neither at Stormont nor Westminster, but elsewhere  – cannot be reconciled with the Conservatives’ desire for divergence.

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The big question over the next few days is probably not “can the deal pass” but whether Johnson decides his interests are served by bringing back a deal to a parliament that is unlikely to sign it off in order to go to the country having “succeeded” in negotiating a new deal, or if he is better off being able to go to the country having walked out of talks while blaming his opponents in parliament for the failure.