It has been a rather frantic week and much of the attention has been on the new proposal to replace the backstop, to much fanfare and apparent optimism in 10 Downing St. It seems the DUP and some of the ERG may be on side. It is possibly it might actually pass in Parliament if the EU agrees. It also seems that Parliament is again being prorogued for a Queen’s speech.
Does the new proposal have any chance of getting anywhere? Is it a dead cat strategy, a term associated with Lynton Crosby as a distraction. Place a dead cat on the table and change the conversation. Or is it a genuine attempt to break the deadlock?
What therefore is the likely way ahead? The blog will discuss sources, present a verdict and look beyond to probable outcomes.
One can in general totally ignore the right wing press with a few honourable exceptions including Matthew Paris of the Times and Peter Foster of the Telegraph. The Mail, Sun and Express can be ignored completely. The BBC sadly can largely also be ignored. Though it has good insight into the Westminster Bubble, it is dreadful on the wider picture. Again some correspondents such as Kata Adler are worthwhile.
I had the questionable joy of listening to the R4 Today programme yesterday. There were interviews with Geoffrey Donaldson of the DUP and Stephen Barclay.
Donaldson started off with the outrageous statement that Ireland introduced a hard currency border on the island of Ireland when it joined the Euro. (Ireland had a totally separate currency the Punt since 1979). He then went on with Gish Gallop, a string of very weak arguments and half truths fired off in rapid succession. The interviewer was useless, so many errors it would take a complete blog on its own.
Barclay was even worse. It was a string of non-sequiturs, evasion and fog. It was as if strings of sentences which might have made sense in the correct order, had been put through a liquidiser. Presumably he is not totally stupid, but it was a deliberate ploy to confuse and obfuscate. The interviewer did try but it was like nailing jelly to a wall.
So much for the BBCs flagship news programme. There are however plenty of good sources out there. This is a very incomplete list but the following are top class: Chris Grey (Organization), David Alan Green (Law), David Henig (Trade), Brigid Laffan (Governance), Ian Dunt (Brexit), Tony Connolly (deep analysis and breaking news), Fintan O’Toole (psychological insight), Chris Kendal and Steve Bullock (Brussels perspective), John O’Brennan and Michael Dougan (EU Law) and Jon Worth, flow chart drawer (extraordinaire).
There is pretty much universal belief, from the analysts I trust, that the new Backstop replacement won’t fly. It is at best fraudulent ploy to put something that might look superficially agreeable by the EU. It may however be something far more sinister. Both Ireland and the EU will be polite. As an opening position with two further years of negotiation it might get somewhere. The EU don’t want however to reject it immediately out of hand and will suspend their disbelief. They will probe the UK to see if there is genuine flexibility on the UK side. But as Phillipe Lamberts says, Johnson wants his Battle of Britain moment.
Prof John O’Brennan’s analysis, is vitriolically scathing. The full twitter thread here but a few extracts:
On Ireland in general:
The sections on Ireland are replete with untruths, or claims that sit very uneasily with what London knows to be the reality of EU rules on CU/SM.
On the Good Friday Agreement:
In reality, the proposal would tear the Agreement to shreds, pulverize inter-communal relations & toxify relationship between Dub and London.
The GFA is blown apart by the different ways in which the proposal damages or even potentially sunders the delicately woven tapestries of Strand one, two, three of GFA. All 3 are damaged.
And in general:
This is in no way a good faith offer. Rather, it is the fraudulent prospectus of Mr Johnson, a political eunuch masquerading as a Caesar, engineered for rejection by EU.
It is worth adding that, in Ireland, giving the DUP an effective veto every four years, would be viewed as positively as a cross between the Brexit Co./EDL, having a veto every 4 years, would be in Britain.
This not simply a dead cat, there are many who will choose to believe this is a genuine UK effort and Johnson will get his wish of a virtual WWII.
The more sinister aspect of this alternative Backstop is well expressed by Fintan O’Toole:
When Boris Johnson described his long-awaited proposals for changes to the Brexit withdrawal treaty as a compromise, he was not wrong. Two questions arise, however. What is being compromised? And who is Johnson compromising with?
The answer to the second is obvious: the proposals are a compromise, not with the EU, but with the DUP. And what is being compromised is the credibility of the UK as a partner in any international negotiations.
Though the EU and the Irish government are too polite to say so directly, Johnson’s plan destroys any remaining sense that the current regime in London is capable of sticking even to its own self-declared principles.
The Likely way Forward
I am a big fan of Jon Worth and the effort he puts in to his flowcharts. His latest one is shown in Fig. 2 (click to expand).
Jon puts the likelihood of a deal as very low. I can’t see this happening and think even 2% is too high. The only plausible scenario is if HMG pivots to a NI only version of the backstop at the last moment. The EU will likely agree, but numbers are not there in parliament. A General Election is still the most likely outcome, with a combined probability of 60%. This I think is correct as anything that will pass the Commons will not pass on the EU side and visa versa. Interestingly the probabilities of both Revoke and a Peoples Vote are both increasing.
The landing zone is still unknown. After the likely GE the outcome will depend on what party (or far more likely parties) can form a Government. A Brexit/Tory one will be dramatically different from a Labour/Lib Dem/SNP one. This may be some form of confidence and supply agreement rather than a full blown coalition.
The backstop replacement will not fly. It is a retrograde step which shows HMG is a very bad light. It is a disgrace, intellectually and morally. The Tories seem to be back in a 1912 mindset as discussed in A repeat of the Turmoil of 1914-1922.
The Guardian Editorial has it correct today.
Yet the realities are immutable. Britain has profound legal and political obligations to the people of Ireland. Britain has deep moral obligations too. None of these are upheld in the government’s new proposals or by the untrustworthy way Britain behaves on the Irish and European stage. Mr Johnson calls it compromise. It should be called perfidy.
This is a new low over the past few years. I’m not sure it will be recoverable. In 1912 and the subsequent period Britain was powerful enough to get its way and bulling behaviour towards Ireland could go unpunished.
It most certainly is no longer the case that Britain is powerful enough on the international stage to get away with it. It is to be hoped internal politics in the UK will find a way out of this mess.