The inevitable blame game has begun. In attacking Downing Street for its aggressive briefings which tore up the diplomatic rule book, some EU leaders walked into a trap set by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s most influential adviser. Donald Tusk accused London of playing the blame game – but Jean Claude-Juncker and the Irish government then took part in it by saying a no-deal exit would be Johnson’s fault. Other member states were unimpressed, warning that Brussels and Dublin were feeding the UK narrative painting the EU27 as the bad guys.
Tellingly, Germany did not retaliate against a one-sided version of Angela Merkel’s frosty phone call with Johnson on Tuesday. A No 10 source, who everyone assumes was Cummings, claimed the German chancellor’s approach meant a deal was “essentially impossible, not just now, but ever.” That Berlin did not return such fire suggests Merkel is keener on a deal than Johnson.
“The fundamental problem is that Boris is not trusted, and this will only make it worse,” one Brussels insider who genuinely wants a deal told me ruefully. “We do not want to be pawns in his election campaign. Everything he does is about that. He is talking to the domestic audience, while pretending to talk to us.”
This belief matters. With the two sides poles apart on customs arrangements on the island of Ireland, the dominant EU view is that the UK is heading for an extension of its EU membership and an election. The Benn Act, forcing the prime minister to seek an extension if there is no agreement by 19 October, is being studied intently in Brussels. Another EU source admitted: “We would be having a different discussion [inside the EU] without it.”
So with an election coming, Dublin and the EU are reluctant to play their last card – probably on customs – in case they don’t need to, as there might soon be a different government in London. Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, could do it when he meets Johnson tomorrow. It could involve conceding a time-limit to the Irish backstop preventing a hard border. But this might prove too little, too late for Johnson: a five-year limit mooted by some EU figures would be too long.
There are signals that Ireland and the EU would return to Johnson’s blueprint as a basis for discussion if he were to win an election. Team Boris’s response is: “all bets are off” unless an agreement is reached now. As one No 10 briefing put it: “If this deal dies in the next few days, then it won’t be revived.”
The same intemperate briefing suggested the Tories would fight the election on a no-deal ticket. This was news to the cabinet, and some members challenged Johnson over it at its meeting yesterday. Some ministers suspect Cummings of trying to wreck any remaining chance of a deal because he actively wants a no-deal departure. Some 50-60 Tory MPs could refuse to run on such a manifesto. Some ministers claim they would resign over such a move. So Johnson could further split his fractious party if he opts for a no-deal platform in an attempt to prevent Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party exploiting what it would call Johnson’s “surrender” to the so-called “Surrender Act” forcing an extension.
More likely, I suspect, is a Tory manifesto pledge of “no delay” to Brexit, which would leave open the possibility of one short, final attempt to reach a deal. A no deal promise, while the kind of crisp, hard message Cummings would love, could alienate many natural Tory voters. It would help Labour and the Liberal Democrats campaign on the many dire warnings about the economic impact of no deal.
A no-deal ticket would also be a classic case of mis-selling. If Johnson won a majority and the UK left without an agreement, it would soon come knocking at the EU’s door for a free trade agreement with its closest trading partner and destination of almost half its exports. If the UK had tried to wriggle out of its £39bn divorce payment, that would immediately be put back on the table by the EU. So would EU proposals to avoid customs checks on the island of Ireland.
So no-deal is a chimera. At some point, the UK will need a deal, if only to prevent an economic catastrophe. The prospects of reaching one would hardly be helped by the acrimonious exit which now looks on the cards if Johnson remains in power.