Tuesday 23 July 2019

John Downing: 'Boris win looks certain - so Brexit may yet become our Halloween nightmare'

Frontrunner: Boris Johnson could prove a nightmare for Ireland. Picture: Reuters
Frontrunner: Boris Johnson could prove a nightmare for Ireland. Picture: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

Boris, no deal, backstop and Brussels. Brexit was never simple - but now the puzzles become more entangled by the hour.

But here are four things we can say with some certainty about a very uncertain situation:

1. Boris: Barring some extraordinary and unforeseen development, Boris 'Brexit-at-all-costs' Johnson will be the next UK prime minister. He is the 1/5 odds-on favourite.

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There will be more elimination votes by the 313 party MPs up to next Saturday. Then two candidates go on the ballot for the Conservative Party's 160,000 members, who have a month to make up their minds and post their vote back to HQ for a result on July 22.

Johnson is the membership darling. Members are 71pc male, 44pc aged over 65, 97pc white, with the vast majority living in the south-east of England. Research showed three out of four members favoured a no-deal Brexit over staying in the EU.

Johnson as prime minister increases the risk of no deal - but does not make it inevitable. There are even intriguing theories that Johnson could "do an Ian Paisley" and, once installed as leader, work to push through Theresa May's Brexit deal. For now that's only a theory, be it ever so intriguing. It hangs mainly on Johnson once having voted for Theresa May's ill-starred deal and wanting to defuse Brexit.

2. No deal: Unless something changes between now and October 31, a no-deal outcome is precisely what will happen by default.

Johnson as new prime minister would seek a re-opening of the Brexit deal done by Mrs May on November 25, which failed to get the necessary UK ratification on three separate occasions. The EU insists there will be no re-opening of the deal.

Three ways of stopping an automatic no-deal look like long-shots: the UK could unilaterally withdraw its Article 50 EU leaving procedure, but hell will freeze over first; extend Brexit beyond October 31, but Johnson has insisted this is not an option - some EU states would not be in favour either and an extension requires unanimity; Westminster could finally back May's deal, but it has failed to do that three times already.

Ironically, the one unifying factor in Brexit votes in the UK parliament was a great majority against a no-deal outcome. But procedurally this has no status. Efforts on Wednesday by the Labour Party at Westminster to initiate a draft law prohibiting a no-deal outcome failed. There may be other resolutions which would have more political force.

The UK parliament's forceful speaker, John 'Ordah, Ordah' Bercow, has already insisted MPs must have a strong say on this issue. But the easy way out for prime minister Johnson from pesky MPs' interference would be to say Brussels are not negotiating.

3. Brussels: The EU itself is now in flux, with all the key jobs up for grabs.

When Taoiseach Leo Varadkar joins his counterparts at a summit next Thursday all the talk will be about who gets those jobs, with Brexit relegated to a sidebar via a progress report.

There will be much posh horse-trading around four big posts: a replacement for Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission president; for Donald Tusk as Council president; for Federica Mogherini as foreign affairs representative; and for Mario Draghi as Central Bank president.

This high-stakes jockeying for these jobs is compounded by the installation of a newly elected European Parliament on July 2. The parliament does not have a clear majority and is already at loggerheads with EU government leaders.

Some EU leaders, notably France's President Macron, want to undo a "lead candidate" system which allowed the MEPs a key say in picking Juncker as Commission president in 2014. All of these things must be played out and compromises reached in tough multi-level talks which could take weeks if not months.

This, and the chaotic politics in London, will further delay things. It all further shortens the time left between now and the looming Halloween Brexit deadline which could become our nightmare.

4. Backstop: A no-deal Brexit means all bets are off, including - much to Ireland's dismay - the backstop. Agreed first in December 2017 between the EU and the UK, it provides for a fall-back to avoid a Border in Ireland if there is no long-term EU-UK agreement on future trade arrangements.

In the surreal world of Brexit politics in the UK, the backstop gradually became the big bogey man. This was largely because the arrangement, extended to the entire UK, led critics to say it would keep the country tied to the EU indefinitely.

That view compounded the belligerence of the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up the Conservatives' minority government. The DUP insists Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as England, Scotland and Wales.

No deal means Border controls between north and south. The only questions are where and how. A least intrusive control regime, avoiding a return of Border posts, would require UK co-operation. That could be hard to get amid acrimony.

Irish Independent

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