Britain’s final offer

UK to release detailed Brexit proposals as Johnson delivers major speech

– What’s the point? –

Forgive me for repeating the same point so often, but it can only be that Downing Street wants Brussels to throw these proposals back in their face.

Be it to cast Brussels as the villain and make it easier to win soft Leavers over to no deal – a prospect they presumably believe is easier than winning hard Leavers over to a soft Brexit – or to make Brussels see London as so unreasonable as to refuse to grant an extension, or both.

The theme of the conference has been “Get Brexit Done”. Yet with the PM outnumbered and outmanoeuvred in Westminster and appearing to have given up all hope of a deal on the Continent, he’ll be returning to the people not having delivered on that promise, but instead asking the public for help in completing it.

By Daniel Capurro, Front Bench Editor
While most backbench MPs are already back in London, preparing to fend off any attempt by the opposition to further embarrass the Government, the Manchester conference continues.

– Still banging on about Europe –

Where last year the party chose to ignore reality because it was too painful, in 2019 it chooses to ignore the present because it believes that Boris Johnson somehow, someway, will find a way out and deliver a majority.

Considering the state of politics, you would expect to find a sense of pessimism at party conference, but far from it.

While privately some of the more ardent Brexiteers fret about a reheated Brexit deal, the majority in attendance want to talk about the Tories’ bold new domestic agenda.

Yet the reality is that, as in 2018, the narrative of conference has been dictated by what is going on 300 miles away in Brussels.

Today, Johnson will deliver his big conference speech and in it he will set out the “final offer” that will soon finally been delivered to European officials.

– Would you look at that –

Peter Foster has acquired details of the plan in advance of the Prime Minister’s speech and sets them out here. They are complex and require some explaining(for example, the plans create two distinct borders), but the only thing that really needs to be said is that they are almost certain to be rejected by Dublin and the EU. (Already, Irish ministers are denouncing the proposals.)

The plans require the creation of a hard customs and VAT border on the island of Ireland. The Government insists that this will be set back from the border itself, high tech, smooth and so on. But it is a major step back from the promise made in 2017 to maintain a soft border and avoid any new infrastructure.

While Downing Street has accepted the need for some regulatory alignment (for a limited period) it cannot overcome the fact that it wants the UK to be free to sign its own trade deals while the DUP refuses to allow a customs border in the Irish Sea.

– What’s at stake –

The issue of the Irish border is, of course, a vast topic, but Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff and chief negotiator on Northern Ireland, came close to summing it up in 30 seconds on Newsnight. The key part is this: “The point of this is not how long it takes a lorry to cross the border in Northern Ireland. The issue is identity.”

That’s not just about Republicans wishing to be Irish, it must be said, but also about Unionists not wishing to drift slowly away from Great Britain. Either way, this is about much more than barcodes on lorries.

Whatever the intricacies, this comes down to hard politics. As Peter explains here, the UK is gambling that the EU will choose to avoid immediate pain by accepting this offer, in the faint hope of being able to prevent future pain too.

– Not a bug, but a feature –

Yet it seems so far from what Dublin and the EU could ever accept that it can’t possibly be a miscalculation.

Even in London, it’s hard to see how these proposals could possibly make it through the Commons unscathed. Not only does this not remove the backstop in its entirety, but it maintains the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement, which the hardline Brexiteers find abhorrent.

Labour MPs, meanwhile, are likely to baulk at a Brexit deal that is substantially harder than that negotiated by Theresa May. And one which waters down the level playing field provisions which would guarantee that the UK stayed close to several areas of EU regulation.

Yet Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser, has told colleagues that the UK will walk away after this offer – “To be clear we won’t be hanging around waiting for them to negotiate with us,” he reportedly told senior advisers. “If they reject our offer, that’s it.”

So why go through the effort?

– What’s the point? –

Forgive me for repeating the same point so often, but it can only be that Downing Street wants Brussels to throw these proposals back in their face.

Be it to cast Brussels as the villain and make it easier to win soft Leavers over to no deal – a prospect they presumably believe is easier than winning hard Leavers over to a soft Brexit – or to make Brussels see London as so unreasonable as to refuse to grant an extension, or both.

The theme of the conference has been “Get Brexit Done”. Yet with the PM outnumbered and outmanoeuvred in Westminster and appearing to have given up all hope of a deal on the Continent, he’ll be returning to the people not having delivered on that promise, but instead asking the public for help in completing it.

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