BBC’s Radio 4 morning news Today programme has regularly interviewed British and EU politicians about the possibility or likelihood that the EU will at the last moment blink and make radical concessions to the UK demands on Brexit.
This illusion seems to be based on a stereotypical view that EU summits, particularly fisheries and CAP summits, very often dragged on into the early hours in Brussels and then resulted in red-eyed negotiators announcing a compromise before wearily clambering into their early morning beds.
Today’s interviewers constantly badger politicians from every other member state hoping that one or other of them will drop their guard sufficiently to allow their next headline to trumpet the news that the Brussels phalanx is showing cracks and will surely accommodate the UK by renegotiating the withdrawal agreement.
You might imagine that those interviewers would by now have realised that this “divide and conquer” strategy is doomed.
But no, they persist.
Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, gave Today a lengthy interview this week in which he spelt out bleak home truths that have so far eluded the befuddled Tory right.
Rutte emphasised that he was a friend of Britain. But he told them that the withdrawal agreement simply would not be re-opened. He told them that the backstop was there to stay. It would not be time-limited. And for good reason, which he spelt out.
He went on to comment on the irony that the UK had voted to leave the EU on the mistaken basis that it was irrevocably set on the path to ever closer union in a federal super-state when in fact the EU is set on a different development path in a very different direction.
That path, he said, is preferred by the majority of member-states who have finally eschewed the very notion of a federalist United States of Europe. Britain’s departure, he said, ironically coincided with a fundamental change in favour of the kind of EU that the UK had always worked for and advocated.
Rutte’s fluent and compelling and compelling analysis of the situation facing the UK left his interviewer floundering in her attempt to open up chinks of light for a UK strategy of re-negotiation or a “negotiated no deal”. His tone was measured and sympathetic but very clear.
Boris Johnson is simply not going to be entertained if he demands to re-negotiate the withdrawal agreement or to dismantle or dilute the backstop.
The only viable UK option is to change the language in the political declaration on future relations between the UK and EU.
Rutte pointed out that the UK outside the EU is destined to be a small economic power and that the UK’s aspirations to be a world power could only be maintained either in, or in close alliance with, the EU. He dismissed the notion of post-imperial Britain becoming some form of maritime global champion of free trade.
While he accepted his interviewer’s point that the Netherlands itself was a small part of the EU, he emphasised its alliance with the Scandinavian, Baltic and other member states, including Ireland by name.
The penny began to drop with Today’s listeners.
Boris Johnson is still peddling political pipe-smoke. It wasn’t for want of negotiating strength that Theresa May ended up in the position that the UK found itself. Her Lancaster House red-lines and her failure to bring the ERG/DUP rump with her made the UK’s present weak position inevitable.
Assuming Johnson wins the Tory membership’s ballot, he will find himself with about 10 weeks to deal with the EU and reconcile himself with the realities.
If Rutte is right about the EU’s resolve, Boris will either have to negotiate a revised political declaration and swallow the withdrawal agreement or face the humiliating truth that he is no better than Theresa May as a strategist and negotiator.
If Johnson engages in shroud-waving about a no-deal outcome, the EU will inevitably ensure that such an outcome would be utterly unacceptable to the UK.
Johnson talks about a “managed no deal” and about an acceptable default tariff regime being possible in the wake of a crash-out.
Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has pointed out that there is no possibility of such a GATT tariff regime in the absence of an agreement with the EU. Boris has, in effect, been found winging it again.
The EU has no interest in a managed no-deal. Inevitably it will use the next four months making it clear that a no deal exit will not be a managed outcome but an unmanageable and unpalatable choice for Britain.
It may well be that Boris will spend those weeks concentrating on preparing the Tories for an electoral contest with Corbyn’s Labour.
If Boris cannot bring home a big concession from Brussels, he knows that he could face a May-like defeat in the House of Commons at the hands of the opposition parties and the DUP/ERG right-wingers. He might be tempted to strike before Corbyn mobilises the second referendum vote behind Labour
The EU has said that there will be no further extension of the UK’s Article 50 deadline beyond Halloween – unless for the purpose, perhaps, of a general election or a second referendum.
This raises the question as to whether Boris could survive a back-down on the withdrawal agreement. While it might be embarrassing, it might not necessarily be fatal for Boris.
If he is half the opportunist that his critics claim, he might just be happy to muddle on with an amended political statement from the EU and with a challenge to his own right to bring him down or force an early election battle with Corbyn. After all, he will be able to build a new cabinet with strong Brexiteer membership, perhaps including Rees-Mogg.
Such a team would be quite adept in persuading the ERG to remain onside.
The DUP simply could not risk a general election which in all likelihood would see them lose their balance of power leverage and have them back on the backbenches staring across at a re-elected Boris or a newly-elected Corbyn.
There is also the minor problem that Nigel Farage would be in the ascendant if the Tories combined a u-turn on the withdrawal deal with an election. That possibility might hand Corbyn the keys to Downing Street by dividing the Brexit vote and losing Tory seats to the LibDems and Labour without any major seat gains for the Farage party.
There are already signs that Johnson is leaving open an escape-hatch from the rhetorical corner into which he has painted himself.
Johnson seems unstoppable now as the next Tory leader. He lusts after Downing Street. He will do anything to win it and keep it – including having to eat copious quantities of humble pie.
None of this seems of any concern to the aging, mostly retired or retiring Tory membership electorate. Theresa May appeared to them as a Neville Chamberlain waving her tattered copy of the withdrawal agreement. Johnson somehow reminds fondly them of hump-shouldered Winston Churchill.
And that’s all that matters for them – giving the old party a fighting chance.
Donald, as I have been warning here, has been teetering on the brink of a new Gulf War with Iran. He will have no allies in the West; Trump may rely absolutely on the butcher Crown Prince and the equally loathsome Netanyahu. They both have form. They both want a war.
Theresa May is simply not going to mark her exit with a war. Nor will Boris want to start off with blood in his hands.
An interesting silly season in the making.
Image credit: Ilovetheeu https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73264188