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Failure of Statecraft

In Dublin, on September 9, Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) held a joint press conference in Dublin on the backstop.

Boris Johnson said the UK could get through No Deal, "But it Would be a Failure of Statecraft”. Johnson also brought up the idea of a Northern Ireland only backstop.

I thought it was general posturing. After all, Johnson has to make it appear as if he wants a deal, whether or not he really does.

Genuine Breakthrough?

The Guardian reports EU Looks to Northern Ireland-Only Backstop to Break Brexit Impasse.

The Journal reports Northern Ireland-Only Backstop Ruled Out by Boris Johnson, says DUP

See the flaw in the second headline?

Here it is: "says DUP".

DUP Dump Coming?

Theresa May's coalition had a majority at the time of 3. She needed 10 DUP votes to stay in power. Johnson does not need 10 votes, he needs dozens.

What convinced me Johnson might be changing his tune is a discussion on Eurointelligence.

So what is Boris Johnson going to do with the five weeks he gained from last night’s prorogation of parliament? Yesterday he met with Leo Varadkar in Dublin. The main impression Johnson left is that he is serious about reaching a deal, calling it a failure of statecraft if a compromise cannot be achieved before October 31.

Johnson rejected Theresa May's negotiated backstop, so what kind of deal does he have in mind? A common zone for agri-food and animals as well as trusted-trader schemes are part of the discussions. This could be extended to a Northern-Ireland-only backstop which solves the Irish border issue by moving the checkpoints to the Irish channel. This was a proposal by the EU earlier in the process, but rejected by the DUP in Northern Ireland.

At this stage, the discussions are about sounding out those proposals that may have a chance to succeed.

But the device of a NI-only backstop with consent is tricky. A simple consultation process may be considered too weak, and a stronger notion could make the EU's future trade rules subject to a unionist veto at Stormont. There is no way the EU would agree to this.

Everything Flawed

This is where it gets tricky. There is no agreement on anything.

These proposals may not be relevant in the end because it is far from clear that a deal with a Northern-Ireland-only backstop would command a majority in the House of Commons. There are Labour MPs who bitterly regret not having voted in favour Theresa May’s deal.

But we think the party’s official position will be to accept a deal only on condition that it is put to a second referendum. We still don’t think that this option commands a majority in the House of Commons either. The 20+ Tory rebels are also not unanimously in favour of a second referendum. But, for a new deal to pass, it is essential that the number of Labour supporters of a bill exceed the number of Tory detractors. We have no doubt that Number 10 will do the math on the bill much more carefully than the previous team.

The Math

If Johnson proposes something, he will either have the votes or be within spitting distance of them.

However, the European Research Group (ERG), the hard-Brexit backing Tories not only want to kill the backstop, they want to kill the political declaration as well.

To understand why, please consider Even if the EU Offers to Remove the Backstop, the Draft Withdrawal Agreement Must Still be Rejected.

There are many features of the Withdrawal Agreement which are just as bad as the Backstop, but which have received far less attention, notably from our Prime Minister.

The Withdrawal Agreement would maintain the supremacy of EU law over the UK, including new laws created by the EU over which the UK would have no voice. This means that UK courts would be required to strike down Acts of Parliament if they are determined to be inconsistent with EU law.

Worse, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice would be retrained, either directly or through a dispute settlement system modelled on the one the EU has with the Ukraine through which a notionally neutral tribunal would be bound on issues of EU law by decisions of ECJ. Since the UK would have no judge on the ECJ, it would effectively be under the jurisdiction of a foreign court.

If that isn’t anti-democratic enough, although the UK would be bound by decisions of the EU institutions, including the European Commission, it would not be able to submit proposals or even requests for information to these bodies. Moreover, UK companies would be subject to EU State Aid rules after the transition period, removing a valuable tool of economic policy from the British government. Add to this the fact that the Withdrawal Agreement has very strict financial penalties for breach of its provisions and there would be no recourse to international courts for their resolution.

Theresa May truly negotiated one of the worst deals in the history of the world.

Let's return to Eurointelligence.

Canada Deal

What about the European Research Group? They reject any form of a backstop, but what might be tempting is the possibility of a Canada-style trade deal for mainland Britain under this solution. A Northern-Ireland-only backstop is also the EU’s preferred option. But there is a catch. The EU would almost certainly insist that the UK refrains from undercutting the EU on social standards. There is technically no reason why a simple free-trade deal should be intrusive, but the EU will argue that the UK is a much bigger economy than Canada, and much closer. We don’t think the UK would accept any restrictions on its ability to regulate its own economy under a simple Canada-style free-trade deal. Theresa May avoided this issue with the nature of her withdrawal agreement. A different deal will reopen the issue.

Whereas the ERG may have been content to kill just the backstop with Theresa May in charge, they expect and demand more from Johnson.

I support a Canada-style free trade deal. But it cannot be at the expense of all the ERG objections above.

And note those Labour members who now regret voting against May's deal. It failed by only a few votes.


In the end, we believe that Johnson could end up in the same spot as Theresa May: with a rejected deal and renewed opposition by Nigel Farage and the ERG who will be demanding a clean Brexit. Johnson's advisers will surely say that he won’t be able to move to a more conciliatory position until after an election. This is why we remain sceptical about the prospects of a deal this side of a general election in the UK.

Election Solution

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The solution, of course, is to hold an election.

For all Cobyn's whining, he does not want an election, at least not now.

That will not change until Corbyn thinks he has a good chance of winning.

Salvini Trap

Eurointelligence mentions the "Salvini Trap".

Matteo Salvini of Italy's League party killed his coalition with the Five Star Movement, M5S.

Salvini was comfortable doing that because he had an unbeatable advantage in the polls.

But check out the result. After the coalition dissolved, instead of elections, M5S was able to form a coalition with PD.

This new coalition came into being despite the fact that M5S came into power (with the League) running totally on an anti-PD platform, calling the PD leadership corrupt and stating they would never enter a coalition with them.

The League is now out of government with no election in sight.

Imaginary Scenario

The House of Commons returns in October. There is a no deal. Jeremy Corbyn calls a no-confidence vote, wins and agrees to support a national unity government under Kenneth Clarke as interim prime minister. Clarke may only receive a mandate to seek an extension. But, as we observe in other parts of Europe, interim government can prove sticky.

Can’t happen? Consider Corbyn is a much diminished figure these days. Imagine that Labour’s popularity will continue to shrink, and that the Labour leadership concludes it cannot afford elections at this point. What started as a short-lived government of national unity would then remain in office because those that support it are desperate to avoid elections. They are playing for time. That government could seek a Brexit extension until after the next scheduled elections in 2022 - at which point the British electorate may have lost interest in Brexit.

This is not a prediction, only a scenario. But look at what just happened in Italy.

We admire Cummings’ strategic acumen, but strange things happen in politics that are beyond the grip of a strategic planner.

We don’t think it is possible to game the multitude of interacting political scenarios beyond October. Our baseline scenario remains that the House of Commons will ultimately not succeed in stopping Brexit. But it looks increasingly uncertain that Brexit will happen on October 31.

Not a Prediction

Eurointelligence says "This is not a prediction, only a scenario."

Eurointelligence put no percentages on the idea. I won't either. It's hard enough to figure out what will happen before Oct 31 to ponder such an idea.

The primary counter is Corbyn has no genuine support from the public, the ejected Tories, SNP, or the Liberal Democrats.

The counter to the counter is what happened in Italy.

What About Benn?

I am confident that Johnson will not ask for an extension. Politically he can't.

I am also confident Johnson has a way around Benn.

However, he may not need to use whatever method he had in mind.

Those who thought Johnson may revive May's deal might be close. As long as we are speculating, what if Johnson comes back with a deal after all.

To do so, he will have to dump DUP. Would Parliament reject it?

Will things even get that far?

I am still trying to get an answer to a simple question: Is Johnson obligated to give a Queen's Speech on October 14. Can he wait until after the EU meeting on the 18th?

Ultimately, it is the No Confidence vote that is in control, not this Benn sideshow.

Eurointelligence is back on track with this statement: "It looks increasingly uncertain that Brexit will happen on October 31"

What We Do Know

  • The Benn bill passed. It requires Johnson to ask for an extension or present a plan for Parliament to vote on.
  • A vote of No Confidence is the most sure-fire way of getting rid of Johnson and preventing No Deal.
  • On Oct 17-18 Johnson meets with the EU.

What We Don't Know

  • What tricks Johnson has up his sleeve pertaining to Benn.
  • Whether Corbyn will wait for the 19th before launching a motion.
  • If Corbyn's huge ego will get in the way of him supporting a caretaker government led by someone other than himself.
  • If Corby insists on himself, if the expelled Tories, SNP, and the Liberal Democrats will go along.
  • If Johnson plans to dump DUP or how Parliament would vote if he did.

Wait and See

Recall that Boris Johnson will "Test Legal Limits" of the Benn bill.

Also recall Chancellor Sajid Javid reply when pressured in an interview by Andrew Marr about how it is possible to obey the law yet not seek an extension.

Javid responsed "We will be consistent with obeying the law but also sticking to our policy. You have to wait and see that happen."

We may have to wait until October 19 unless Corbyn files a motion before then. Such a motion cannot occur before Oct 14. Thus, October 14 is the minimum wait.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock