Johnson’s time is unprecedented. History will be made one way or the other.

Front Bench 

Good Morning. A flurry of stories suggest Boris Johnson is pivoting back towards a Brexit deal. Yet a general election is still the most likely outcome.

A Brexit deal is still a long way off, despite reported progress on the backstop with the DUP

Daniel Capurro By Daniel Capurro, Front Bench Editor
Having been snookered on no deal, is Boris Johnson returning to a deal to get Brexit done? Were the moderates who backed him, arguing that only Johnson had the Brexiteer credibility to force a soft Brexit, right after all? Was Nigel Farage correct to suspect Johnson would inevitably return to Theresa May’s deal?

Maybe. But there is reason to be sceptical.

– Wait, we’re back at a deal? How? –

First, the why. Three developments this morning point in the direction of a deal. The first is a speech by John Bercow, the Speaker, who made clear he would allow parliamentary “creativity” to force Johnson to obey the law and seek an extension. That strengthens MPs’ bind on the Prime Minister.

The second is an interview by leading Tory rebel Sir Oliver Letwin, in which he claimed a cross-party alliance in Parliament would block another election until Brexit was resolved and out of the way. That echoed calls by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson for a referendum rather than an election.

The third is the report in The Times this morning that the DUP has softened significantly on a Northern-Ireland backstop. The Unionist party has always seen no deal as a political tool, not a desired end state and fears it would risk a united Ireland. As such it has reportedly accepted the idea of Northern Ireland continuing to follow some EU regulations and the need for regulatory checks in the Irish Sea.

All aboard the deal train it is then? Not quite. There are still some major problems despite these developments.

– Hold your Orangemen –

The Bercow comments are what they are, although if anything they strengthen Johnson’s anti-Parliament cause.

Sir Oliver’s claims, meanwhile, are just that: claims. If the Labour leadership decides it wants an election, then the cross-party rebels can threaten a zombie parliament all they want: an election will happen anyway.

Jeremy Corbyn might yet calculate that making Johnson carry the can for an unpopular Brexit deal is better politics than delaying an election for months. It seems unlikely though.

However, it’s in the DUP news where serious holes open up. By far the biggest problem is that this “breakthrough” relies on the EU abandoning its insistence that Northern Ireland remains in the customs union and accept “alternative arrangements” for the customs border instead.

– Something, something, it’s still the backstop –

But we’ve been dancing around this maypole for over two years now. The backstop exists for the very reason that the EU doesn’t believe that alternative arrangements can be ready in time.

Brussels points to the fact that no customs border in the world is frictionless, even the one between Sweden and Norway where both countries are in the single market (as Northern Ireland and the Republic would be).

Without Northern Ireland in a customs union, the backstop ceases to be a backstop.

On top of that, as I wrote yesterday, for all the talk of Britain softening its stance in some areas, negotiators are hardening in others. Most notably on the issue of level playing field requirements (to prevent the UK deregulating while keeping preferential single market access), which London wants watering down.

There’s a reason that the message from Brussels this morning is that a deal is a long way off.

– Let’s speculate anyway –

Beyond the practicalities of getting a deal, what of the politics of passing it? Would May’s Deal 1.2 (it really wouldn’t merit the 2.0 label) pass Parliament? Maybe.

It’s hard to see why Labour would officially back it. Corbyn and Co would argue that it still doesn’t protect workers rights. Plus, without the all-UK backstop as a basis for the future relationship, the deal delivers a rather hard Brexit for Great Britain.

Politically it would make more sense for Labour to bang on about a “hard Tory Brexit” and push again for an election.

Assuming the DUP was on board, it would be much harder for Brexiteer rebels to block the deal. You can’t out unionist the Unionists. And Johnson may stick to his threat of deselection. But with a working majority of -45, can he bring on board enough Labour rebels or former Conservative MPs?

– Don’t forget the voters –

Beyond Parliament, does it even make sense politically for Johnson to pursue the deal? Would Tory voters wear it at an election? Again, it’s a maybe. It was always more than just the backstop which was unpopular with many Leave voters.

If Farage denounced the deal and continued to push for a no-deal Brexit, it could cost the Tories at an election.

One final question (I know there have been too many already): would a post-Brexit election really be a triumph for Boris? Again, maybe not.

Just as Winston Churchill was rewarded for leading Britain to victory in 1945 with a thumping majority for Labour’s Clement Atlee, voters may thank Johnson for delivering Brexit by opting for a socialist government.

With Brexit “out of the way” (it won’t be, the future relationship negotiations are to come), will they opt for Johnson’s big spending-light or decide that it’s time for Corbyn’s full-fat socialism?

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