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9 December 2020

Are Boris Johnson’s theatrics cover for a Brexit deal or no deal?

The Prime Minister’s EU trip could be designed to present a collapse in the talks as the fault of Europe, rather than the UK.

By Stephen Bush

Is the UK government’s decision to remove the law-breaking clauses from the Internal Market Bill and the Taxation Bill the first stage in the great British climbdown?

Michael Gove – the man in charge of the operational negotiations over how the Northern Ireland protocol will work in practice – has announced that talks have gone so well that the law-breaking clauses will not be needed, deal or no deal. 

There are two interpretations of what this means. The first is that by confirming the substance of Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement – that thicker regulatory border down the Irish Sea – the government is paving the way for concessions in the trade talks when the Prime Minister sits down to negotiate with EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. 

For many of Johnson’s Remainer critics in parliament, what we are seeing now represents the end of a failed attempt by the British government to use hardball tactics to get its way. For his Brexiteer critics, it is the end of a successful attempt to reassure unionist Conservatives that he never had any intention of unpicking the Northern Ireland protocol.

[see also: No EU trade deal can undo the harm Brexit has inflicted on the UK]

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But there’s another interpretation: that this is not the prelude to a Brexit deal but to a no-deal exit. Don’t forget that the beauty of the Northern Ireland protocol from a Brexiteer ultra’s perspective is that it allows England, Scotland and Wales to seize the ultimate regulatory freedom that can only be won via a no-deal Brexit while maintaining the status quo on the Irish border.

Ultimately, we’ll know more one way or the other when this day is out: Gove is due to unveil the details of the protocol deal this afternoon in parliament while Johnson is set to meet with von der Leyen.

We know that the Prime Minister’s visit to Brussels is pure theatre – what we don’t know yet is whether it is theatre designed to present concessions to the European Union as some form of great British triumph, or to present the collapse of talks as the fault of anyone else but the Conservative government. 

[see also: Are Remainers to blame for a hard Brexit?]