Is Boris Johnson preparing to make a deal on Brexit?

If the Prime Minister can find a way of appearing to “win” the negotiations, the UK could yet avoid a no-deal Brexit. 

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Are we any closer to striking a trade deal with the EU? Last night government sources were briefing that "no tangible progress" has been made in negotiations since Friday, while figures from the European side expressed gloominess about the prospect of a deal amid reports that divisions over fisheries have only deepened. “In Brussels certainly the mood is starting to shift to contingency planning for a no-deal,” Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, told RTÉ television after arriving back in Dublin from talks in Brussels last night.   

[ See also: What’s more important – the theatre industry, or the fishing industry?]

On the other hand, yesterday the UK said that "good progress" has been made in separate negotiations over the arrangements for implementing the Northern Ireland protocol, and released a statement in which it said it will remove the law-breaking clauses from its controversial Internal Market Bill if solutions are finalised in the joint committee with the EU. It is a slightly perverse gesture of goodwill  to threaten to renege on an international treaty and indicate otherwise at the eleventh hour – but it augurs well nonetheless, suggesting a greater willingness to strike a deal on the UK's part and partially removing one of the biggest barriers to trust between the two parties (the clauses were still reintroduced when the legislation returned to the Commons yesterday).

Most importantly, Boris Johnson is off to Brussels this week (probably on Wednesday) to continue talks with Ursula von der Leyen in person, after the pair took stock of their positions in a 90-minute phone conversation last night. It is by no means a sign that a deal is imminent, especially given the deadlock in recent talks; if anything, it underlines the fact that the negotiators can go this far and no further without political direction from the very top. But, to think of it another way, no deal would be possible without an eleventh-hour in-person summit between the main political actors in this drama. It's a convention of negotiations to leave it to the principals to thrash out the last-ditch agreement in a final flash of political theatre; if a deal is to be struck, or a breakthrough to be had, it will be in these circumstances.

Yesterday Stephen asked what the government actually wants from Brexit, and concluded that, if we are to believe the government's soundings about "sovereignty", that no deal is the only natural way to achieve that. But, as he and I discuss with Anoosh on today's podcast, there is one thing the government wants more than a vague ideal of "taking back control", and that is being seen to "win" the negotiations with the EU.

The only way you "win" these trade talks is quite possibly, through a Brexiteer lens, by walking away with no deal in a final show of defiance, or by securing concessions that the EU would simply never agree to. But it may also just mean, like in 2019, a final flash of theatre before moving our red lines to get a deal. Last time, the Prime Minister didn't "win" the negotiations; he capitulated, he broke a promise not to impose a customs border down the Irish Sea, and managed to spin it as winning anyway. It is impossible for those of us outside the negotiations at this point to distinguish the posturing from the real sticking points, but at this point, the theatre is part and parcel of the final outcome itself. If Johnson can find a way of appearing to "win" these negotiations while securing a trade deal, we could well find ourselves with a deal yet.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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