Published:

141 comments

A deal agreed by Boris Johnson in London and one agreed by him in Brussels ought to turn out much the same.  But that is not how some Conservative MPs will see it.

Neville Chamberlain…”I hold in my hand a piece of paper”…”peace in our time”.  The former Prime Minister’s trip to Munich has a grip on a certain type of Eurosceptic imagination.

So it was that one senior pro-Brexit MP texted ConservativeHome yesterday evening to say “and lo, it came to pass that Eurosceptics began telling me Boris going there is a prelude to a sellout”.

Our sense is that only a small minority of Tory MPs want No Deal, and are inclined to greet the prospect of a deal with hostility – any deal at all.

Some Brexiteering backbenchers we spoke to yesterday evening were quizzical rather than belligerent, partly because they trust the Prime Minister, and partly because they trust David Frost.

The Frost-and-Oliver-Lewis show has done much to settle the nerves of longtime Eurosceptic Conservative MPs.  Fairly or unfairly, some keep contrasting it with the Olly Robbins experience.

But much depends for them, reasonably enough, on what any agreement actually says – and, in particular, whether it binds the UK to EU rules in perpetuity.

All the above is founded on the commonsense presumption that there would be no point in the Prime Minister travelling to Brussels were a deal not at least possible.

Some of those set on No Deal will claim that the tale we are reading of a deadlocked negotiation is chaff – a cover for Johnson preparing to claim victory while having actually been defeated.

Now it is true that the Prime Minister changed his tune on parts of the Withdrawal Agreement – agreeing new regulatory barriers in the Irish Sea that he had previously opposed.

It is also the case that even if Labour doesn’t support any agreement, and merely abstains, he would have the numbers to get an agreement through the Commons.

However, the commentary closest to the action insists that the disagreements between the Government and the EU, and within the EU itself, as France and Germany disagree, are real and raw.

Furthermore, divergence between UK and EU rules has been at the heart of Johnson’s approach to Brexit long before he resigned from Theresa May’s Government over Chequers.

And we do not read him as willing to follow in her footsteps – that’s to say, show a willingness to split the Conservative Party, work with a Labour leader…and be duly deposed.

Indeed, there’s reason to believe that a Prime Ministerial visit to Brussels may be a sign that we should prepare ourselves not for a deal, but for No Deal.

This view of events holds that Johnson wants to show that he wants an agreement before accepting the inevitable: that the negotiating positions of the two sides of the table are now irreconcilable.

One senior Brexiteer told ConservativeHome that, since Ursula von der Leyen’s position is closer to Angela Merkel’s than Emmanuel Macron’s, the Prime Minister may hope to find a way through on that basis.

After all, the President of the European Commission is a former Minister of Defence in Merkel’s Cabinet.  But Michel Barnier might need a new negotiating mandate for there to be substantial movement from the EU side.

We read this morning that the date of the Prime Minister’s visit is uncertain: that it may come today, or tomorrow…or after Thursday’s EU summit.

He will presumably want to avoid that event altogether, after May’s horrendous series of humiliations at similar events during the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations.

Remember the dreadful photo of the former Prime Minister sitting in a waiting room with only a pot plant for company, being trolled by Donald Tusk on Instagram, and being described (allegedly) by Jean-Claude Juncker as “nebulous”.

It defies that Eurosceptic imagination to picture Johnson returning from Brussels with no piece of paper and not declaring a deal for our time. But so it may be yet.