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28 January 2020

Leo Varadkar’s Brexit comments highlight the big problem for the Conservatives

It’s still unclear what Boris Johnson will compromise on in order to fulfil his pledge to deliver a trade deal by December.

By Patrick Maguire

Now that Brexit is all of three days away, are negotiations over a trade deal over before they’ve even begun? That’s what Leo Varadkar would like Downing Street to think.

The Irish taoiseach has used a set-piece interview with the BBC to claim Britain “has yet to come to terms with the fact it’s now a small country” and would be forced to make concessions on issues such as fishing in order to strike a deal that preserved the City’s market access.

“We have a population and a market of 450 million people. The UK, it’s about 60 [million],” Varadkar said. “So if these were two teams up against each other playing football, who do you think has the stronger team?”

There is an obvious retort to Varadkar’s intervention: a leader running for re-election and lagging in the polls would say that, wouldn’t he? Watch even a snippet of last night’s seven-way leaders’ debate on RTÉ and the incentive for Fine Gael to shift the debate onto Brexit and away from their patchy stewardship of public services is clear.

So far, so reassuring for Tory Brexiteers. But that analysis belies a more fundamental and altogether more inconvenient truth. Neither Dublin nor Brussels’s analysis of the trade-offs required will change regardless of whether Varadkar or Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin end up as taoiseach after 8 February. Nor will the fact that any divergence or indeed the right to diverge significantly from EU rules will inevitably hinder its market access in the way that Varadkar described. And, ultimately, 450 million will always be a bigger number than 60 million.

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What, then, is Boris Johnson to do? Varadkar’s intervention poses much deeper questions for the Conservative Party than it does Fine Gael. Though Sajid Javid moved to calm business over the prospect of divergence from EU rules last week, it is still unclear just what the Prime Minister is willing to compromise on in order to fulfil his pledge – now enshrined in legislation – to have a trade deal signed, sealed and delivered by December.

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It might mean, as Varadkar said, painful concessions on totemic issues like fishing. It might also mean, as the front page of this morning’s Times points out, EU courts retaining the right to enforce the terms of whatever deal is agreed. Or it might mean, in the event that the markets really are the thing that Johnson is prepared to compromise on, an economic hit. As the honeymoon fades, new fissures within the Conservative ranks are increasingly discernible this week – be they over Huawei or HS2. Whatever decision Downing Street makes on trade is likely to throw them into very harsh relief indeed.