France is leading a last minute attempt to extract concessions on fishing rights from Johnson

Good morning. A deal is effectively done, but with the DUP holding out, Boris Johnson is faced with the same fate as his predecessor.

DUP hold out over consent as Johnson heads to first Brussels summit with deal on the table

By Daniel Capurro, Front Bench Editor
Boris Johnson heads to Brussels today for his first ever summit with a familiar foreboding. A deal is, supposedly, done and on the table. But hanging over the PM is the same DUP cloud that sank his predecessor.

Details are still scarce of what exactly has been agreed, and most Conservative MPs are trying to withhold judgement. Indeed, it’s not even officially clear what the hold up is.

The positive reports – that a deal was basically done – were all coming from EU figures. Whether it was simple optimism or an attempt to pressure the UK, Downing Street is still trying to keep a lid on expectations.

– Though shalt have none of my fishies –

Talks are not totally complete and officially the only technical issue left unresolved is how Northern Ireland will fit into the UK and/or the EU’s VAT system (although it seems to be somewhat of a smokescreen for the DUP problem).

However, our team in Brussels reports that there is still a hold-up on the future relationship, which is contained in the non-binding political declaration (a declaration of intent over any future trade deal).

That contains the level playing field provisions in which the UK promises not to deregulate too much, something London had wanted to water down.

But it also addresses other aspects of the future relationship and Peter Foster and James Crisp report that France is leading a last-minute effort to extract concessions on fishing rights from Johnson.

– HolDUP on consent –

Despite all this, the real issue is the DUP. Exact details of the new customs arrangements aren’t known, but effectively there will be a border in the Irish Sea. That seems like a major climb down from the DUP, but the Unionist party is now sticking all its chips on the issue of consent.

Again, the actual mechanisms are technical and arcane, although James Rothwell has the details here. But in a nutshell, it’s a question of cross-community support and vetoes. What the EU is proposing is an opt-out which would require cross-community support to trigger (ie nationalist and unionist), which would almost certainly never happen because only the DUP is anti-backstop.

What the DUP would like is an opt-in in which a single community, whether in a minority or not, has the ability to collapse it. (That’s the way the devolved assembly works generally, and Leo Varadkar caused DUP outrage yesterday by suggesting the system needed reform for Stormont to get back up and running.)

The EU won’t accept that because it hands the DUP exclusive power to plug on everything.

The DUP have been in and out of No10 all week, but so far they are refusing to budge. Without them a deal simply can’t happen. There is no point in Johnson bringing something back from Brussels that is doomed to fail – better to let talks collapse and try to blame the EU than be humiliated in the Commons.

– It pays to make friends –

But why are the DUP still so crucial when the Government has lost its majority and will need to win over so many Labour MPs anyway?

The issue is that the DUP carry much more than their own 10 votes. They have long provided political cover for Tory Brexiteers to oppose the deal, but it was clear from talking to hardliners last night that the cover is a double-edged sword.

The bulk of the hardliners or “Spartans” want to vote for the deal. As Camilla Tominey explains here, they are acutely aware that this might be their last chance to deliver Brexit and believe the end of the whole-UK backstop makes this a much better deal.

But having stood by the DUP for two years, they can hardly abandon them now. In reality, the DUP effectively wield 30-40 votes. That’s far too much ground to make up.

– A fox, a chicken and a sack of grain –

Even if a deal is delivered with Unionist support, it’s far from certain whether Johnson has the numbers anyway.

The PM will still be reliant on a dozen or more Labour MPs backing him and, as Stephen Bush explains, there appears to be very little chance that they will do so in the numbers Johnson needs.

Meanwhile, there has been an assumption that the bulk of expelled Tories would back a deal too. Yet as Philip Hammond pointed out on Sky last night, many of them, himself included, will regard any hard or “blind” Brexit under Johnson as equivalent to no deal and will vote against it.

Yet to bring them on board, the political declaration will need to be a roadmap to a soft Brexit and therefore one which will severely strain the Brexiteer’s ability to vote for the deal.

Those are bad signs for the PM.

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