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17 October 2019

Boris Johnson must hope that fighting a Brexit election ends better than last time

There are no easy or comfortable options for the Prime Minister. 

By Stephen Bush

Is the United Kingdom on the brink of a deal with the European Union? Well, yes, and also, no.

Yes: the technical details on an accord that would see the UK accept something which looks an awful lot like the EU’s original proposals for the backstop, but, in the event of the backstop coming into force, would give Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly the ability to vote to discontinue it after four and eight years. 

The prize for the Conservatives: by moving the regulatory border to the Irish Sea, it opens up the potential for greater divergence from the EU after Brexit.

But also, no: as well as the remaining technical details over how VAT is administered, the path to it passing the House of Commons is unclear. The major difference between Boris Johnson’s original proposals and this, as far as the question of Northern Ireland’s consent to the backstop, is that the mechanism now would be one in which Stormont would have to vote to exit the backstop, rather than vote to enter it: in practice that means that instead of giving the DUP a veto over entering it, it would give the supporters of the backstop a veto over exiting it.

The DUP have, unsurprisingly, said that they cannot back the deal in its current form. The fundamental problem has always been and still is that the Conservative interest in Brexit (the ability to diverge on regulation, customs and agriculture) cannot be reconciled with both the Irish government’s interests (to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland) and the DUP’s interests (to avoid decisions made about Northern Ireland without them).

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The only deal capable of meeting the requirements of the Conservative Party and the DUP is a no-deal Brexit – and the hope, however unlikely that may be, that after a no-deal Brexit, talks can restart with the presumption of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This parliament has sought to block no deal at every opportunity. The only way to pass a deal in this parliament is to attach it to a referendum or soften it to the point of pointlessness – both are untenable for the Tory party.

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Or there’s option three: which is to seek an extension, secure a deal that unifies the Conservatives, stuffs the DUP, and hope that fighting the 2019 election as a Brexit election ends in a better result than the 2017 one did.