Wednesday 16 October 2019

John Downing: 'We're looking at a Brexit extension then a British general election'

Royal welcome: Queen Elizabeth II greets British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Buckingham Palace. Picture: AFP/Getty
Royal welcome: Queen Elizabeth II greets British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Buckingham Palace. Picture: AFP/Getty
John Downing

John Downing

Michel Barnier is keeping a tentative toe in that Brexit door - very probably his smallest one. There is by now far more despair than hope surrounding prospects of a minute-to-midnight Brexit deal.

It begs the question: just what will Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar talk about when they meet in the north-west of England today?

The chances are that this one may be largely for the optics: failure by either leader to be at least seen to be still trying for a deal would be very damaging politically.

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Speaking to Euro MEPs yesterday, the EU's chief negotiator, Barnier, spelled out three serious flaws in the latest proposals from Mr Johnson.

These are: legal uncertainty about their workability; the prospect of an effective future veto by the Democratic Unionist Party, and the unacceptability of customs checks returning in Ireland.

READ MORE: Colette Browne: 'Johnson uses 'Downing Street sources' like Trump uses Twitter - and UK's right-wing press laps it up'

Mr Barnier did not slam the door shut, but he did not underplay the huge obstacles in the path of some kind of deal ahead of the outer deadline of October 31.

Back in Dublin the Taoiseach defended the Budget as a defence against a no-deal Brexit - and then insisted that, in preparing for the worst, he was not assuming that no deal was the only available outcome.

Time is rapidly evaporating on this one. Let's count backwards from the crucial EU leaders' summit which begins in precisely seven days' time in Brussels.

Tomorrow, Mr Barnier will brief the 27 EU ambassadors as part of next week's summit preparations.

It will not be upbeat, but the chief negotiator will not shut things down and will suggest negotiations can continue over the weekend.

On Monday and Tuesday, the summit preparations move up a step with a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

READ MORE: William Hague: 'There's only one way Ireland, the DUP, and Johnson can all get what they want'

Unless something astonishing emerges over these days, things will shuffle along toward the summit itself next Thursday.

The mainstream view is that even if Mr Johnson could move further, for example on keeping the North inside the EU customs union, he could not sell that to his own party's ardent Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party. So he could not get such a deal through Parliament.

We are looking at another extension and a move toward an early general election.

Mr Johnson is sworn not to put in an application for more time beyond the October 31 deadline. But he is obliged by the law passed by MPs last month to do just that - and his lawyers have told the courts he will obey the law.

The UK PM needs a two-thirds majority of MPs to get an early general election and many in Labour do not want an early vote. Others want another referendum first.

READ MORE: John Downing: 'Boris remains trapped in a Brexit maze of his own making'

But things could take on their own impetus, driving the country to the polls in early December. That vote could decide the ultimate fate of Brexit.

Irish Independent

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