White smoke? Yesterday’s crisis talks between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar have produced what nobody expected: the basis of a deal on the Irish border.
After a week of acrimonious briefing and counter-briefing as to just who was to blame for what looked like certain failure – and an inevitable no-deal scenario – yesterday’s crisis summit at Thornton Manor on the Wirral ended with the Prime Minister and the taoiseach agreeing in a joint statement that a pathway to agreement existed. Varadkar even went as far as to suggest a deal could be agreed by next week’s European Council summit.
So what might that deal look like? Though the specifics won’t be made public – or rather, leaked – until after Steve Barclay meets Michel Barnier in Brussels this morning, we know it involves a big offer from Johnson on the two knottiest questions remaining: how he intends to avoid a hard customs border between North and South, and how to secure Northern Ireland’s democratic consent to whatever arrangements are agreed.
We know that Varadkar, like any taoiseach, will never drop his demands for a solution that involves no new physical infrastructure or checks – or accede to any consent mechanism that gives the DUP a veto. The UK’s original proposals failed on both. So for a deal to have any chance of flying, Johnson has at least shown a willingness to square both of those circles.
How? The suggestion doing the rounds in Dublin is that Northern Ireland would leave the customs union – fulfilling, on paper at least, the DUP’s demand for the whole UK to leave on the same terms – but be treated as if it hadn’t, with EU tariffs applied at its ports and any difference with Britain’s rebated to businesses. As for consent, Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said last night that no one community would get a veto over the arrangements – and did not rule out putting them to a referendum.
If you think that all sounds a bit like the sort of de facto Irish Sea border that the DUP has set its face like flint against for the duration of this process, then you’d be right. If you’re old enough to remember the so-called customs partnership proposed by Theresa May last year – and subsequently rubbished by her own cabinet and many of her MPs – then this will also feel incredibly familiar. Both Arlene Foster and the hard Brexiteers of the European Research Group are keeping schtum for now, and have been careful to dismiss nothing. But, if the gist of this morning’s reports are right, they have reason to be angry.
Yet for Downing Street, the incentive to compromise is clear. If you are Johnson or Dominic Cummings, looking at a parliament in which the DUP can no longer really be said to hold the whip hand, hearing 20 or more Labour MPs almost begging to vote for any deal, seeing the Tories who lost the whip over no-deal asking for the same, you noting that plenty of the 28 Spartans who voted against May’s deal three times are now serving in your government, and that those who aren’t are softening their opposition, and imagining the electoral dividends you’ve convinced yourself you might reap by just getting Brexit done… is it really so implausible that you’d execute this sort of U-turn?
Of course, they are far, far from there yet. We might well look back at today’s optimistic reporting as the prelude to another round of the blame game. If Johnson isn’t willing to move as far as yesterday’s statements implied, then expect things to fall apart very quickly. But, for the first time in his premiership, it is now just about possible to imagine a scenario in which he calls an election with a withdrawal agreement signed, sealed and delivered.