- Let’s start with what we know. Boris Johnson refused to commit this afternoon to Northern Ireland leaving the Customs Union under any new deal. He said instead that “the whole of the UK will be able to take full advantage of Brexit”.
- It appears from this statement and what briefing we have that he and Leo Varadkar settled yesterday on some form of what we might call the Ruparel Plan – named after Raoul Ruparel, formerly Theresa May’s EU adviser.
- The essence of the scheme is a fudge, whereby Northern Ireland is outside the Customs Union in legal terms but within it in practical ones. Theresa May’s complex Customs Partnership idea is revived, but applied to Northern Ireland only.
- As Ruparel puts it, “NI businesses can reclaim any tariff differential if they sell their products in NI rather than IRE – similar to the New Customs Partnership but for NI rather than the entire UK”.
- This arrangement is underpinned by a Northen Ireland consent arrangement “where no single party can determine the future of NI, but where an NI Protocol can only endure if there is broad consent in across that nation”.
- Varadkar could reasonably portray such an arrangement as a win for Ireland. True, Northern Ireland would not formally be part of the Customs Union. But there would be no North-South customs border – a core strategic aim for Ireland.
- Johnson could do likewise for the whole UK. True, there would be an East-West customs and regulatory border. But Northern Ireland would benefit with the rest of the UK from any trade deal with third parties – a core strategic aim for the UK.
- The DUP has not rejected the Government’s approach outright. However, its statement stresses Unionist consent – “the support of the Unionist as well as the Nationalist community” and “no barriers to trade within the UK”.
- The Spartans are opposed to elements of the Withdrawal Agreement other than the backstop. Obviously, it isn’t clear yet what view they will take of an agreed package. The ERG previously forced a ban on the Customs Partnership plan into law.
- For hardline Remainers, any prospect of a deal is alarming. They want no deal; an extension; a second referendum – and revoke. (Some want to move straight to the latter.) They will seek to tack a referendum on to any deal with Remain as the alternative.
- The EU has agreed to “intensify discussions” during the run-up to next week’s European Council meeting: these don’t appear as we write to be fully-fledged “tunnel” discussions. The EU will have particular concerns about whether the reclaim plan for tariffs is robust.
- All in all, there is no guarantee of a deal. But any scheme that Varadkar and Johnson can agree on will get a fair wind. And both men are clearly keen – if not desperate – for a deal: the aftermath of their meeting this week shows that beyond any doubt.
- And if there is a deal, there is no guarantee of Parliament passing it. The main hurdles, in ascending order of seriousness, are: hardline Remainers; opposition parties; Spartans – and the DUP.
- Furthermore, Johnson has a timetable problem. He has pledged that Brexit will be achieved by October 21 “do or die”. But it is very hard indeed that a deal could be negotiated, agreed and pass Parliament in less than a month.
- So might Johnson seek to wrap an extension next week within an apparent negotiating “win for Britain”. How long would this extension last for? What would MPs and voters think of it? Might a time-limited backstop be proposed while it comes into effect?
- The Parliamentary questions linger. Would “Labour for a Deal” MPs really come across? How hard would second referendum backers fight any deal? Could some of the 21 Tory rebels regain the whip by backing a deal – just as the Spartans lose it?
- If a deal was agreed and landed badly with pro-Brexit voters and Tory backbenchers, might Labour turn turtle on a no confidence vote in Parliament, and seek to oust Johnson before any Bill on a deal were passed?
- Would business in Northern Ireland complain of seeing new regulatory and customs barriers to East-West trade, or welcome Single Market membership and UK trade deal benefits – assuming the Ruparel Plan, or something like it?
- Above all, perhaps: why now? If this plan has such potential for all, why has it only been floated so late in the day? Did May’s Downing Street not think of it? Or was the time not right before? Do the EU and UK need an “essay crisis” before making concessions?
- Similarly, what on earth has been going on this week? Has the Westminster Village been played for a sucker – with the Merkel phone row and the Cummings Spectator briefing as distractions, while all the while the elements of a deal were being quietly put into place?
- Or have Johnson and Varadkar, in particular, stepped back from the brink – and, realising that No Deal is deeply problematic for both Britain and Ireland, given some ground?
- ConservativeHome has sceptical since at least the Chequers summit that a deal will be agreed between the EU and UK and then endorsed by Parliament. For the first time in a long time, we can begin to see how one is now possible.
Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson stands on the brink of humiliation, but reaches for a recycled joke
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