Is Boris Johnson really serious about walking out of Brexit talks if a deal has not been reached by 15 October, as he will claim today? Even ministers are divided about whether the Prime Minister’s statement is a change of position, or simply a negotiating posture.
The case for scepticism runs like this: in 2017, Johnson and his allies called for Theresa May to have a staged walk-out in order to convince the European Union that the British government was serious about a no-deal exit, and thereby unlock a better trade deal. This argument suggests the government is now taking the opportunity to apply that gambit to the EU-UK trade talks.
But the case to take the Prime Minister’s words at face value looks stronger. Over at the FT, Peter Foster reveals the government is preparing to bring forward legislation that would unpick the legal commitments around the Irish border made by the British government when Johnson negotiated the withdrawal agreement.
Don’t forget that the argument, originally advanced in private by Dominic Cummings and others to support the backing of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, was that anything we agreed to complete the United Kingdom’s exit could be unpicked after we had left the bloc.
Yes, undermining the Irish border protocol means undermining any hope of a serious US-UK trade deal, but the government’s own red lines, on agri-food, the National Health Service and more besides, have already undermined any hope of a serious US-UK trade deal.
And the big prize of Brexit, at least as far as this Downing Street is concerned, is freedom from restrictions on state aid: an aim that, similarly, cannot be achieved while signing any EU-UK trade deal.
So the possibility of no deal remains very high – and the government’s moves in that direction should be taken seriously.