Donald Tusk has it the wrong way round. Those to whom he was clearly referring – pro-Brexit Conservative politicians – had a “sketch of a plan”, and more. It was more or less the Canada-style proposal that he proposed on March 7 last year, and described himself as a “Canada Plus Plus Plus” plan on October 4, echoing the language of David Davis and others. The main divergence between those Brexiteers and himself was over the Northern Ireland backstop. So he should not be entirely surprised that the Commons has now rejected it, and that that he, the EU and the UK are where they are today.
What has brought all three to this pass is not disagreement among Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the former Vote Leave Team, but the refusal of the Commons (broadly) and the Conservatives (specifically) to unite behind a Canada-type plan. None the less, Tusk cannot now complain that he doesn’t know what both want where the Withdrawal Agreement is concerned. The former has voted for junking the backstop and the latter agrees that it must change, at the very least (with the exception of a small band in this case of Remainers and Soft Brexiteers). The most likely driver of Tusk’s remark, which was carefully planned and promoted, is that he is frustrated by the Commons’ unwillingness to roll over. That is certainly Hell – at least for him.
There will be other readings of his words. One is that he knows that the EU will, in time, offer concessions on the backstop, if the Commons holds firm – even if these are not the removal outlined in the Brady amendment and the Malthouse Plan. And that this frustrates him. Another is that he and the EU are determined not to make any such offer now. They are waiting to see if the Commons hares off in the other direction to that it took last week: in other words, whether it will vote next week for the Cooper amendment, or something like it, thereby making it likely that the Commons will take control of the negotiation and shift towards a Norway Plus-type approach. It may be that the point of Jeremy Corbyn’s latest volte-face on Brexit is to anticipate precisely that.
On this site yesterday, Richard Graham wrote about how political positions can emerge by accident – by the different actors mis-reading each others’ intentions. The UK and Brexiteers themselves have sometimes misread the EU’s. But the reverse is also true, and Tusk’s remarks may be evidence of it. His calculation may be to try to isolate the European Research Group and Cabinet pro-Leavers. But all he may have achieved is to bolster the view among many voters, not all of whom voted Leave in 2016, that the EU is dragging its feet and gambling on MPs backing down. Hence perhaps the support for No Deal we’re seeing on the BBC’s Question Time – and elsewhere.