After this week, a no-deal Brexit looks a lot more likely. No Brexit at all also looks more likely. But we’ll still spend the next few weeks pretending to take Boris Johnson’s efforts to negotiate a “better” Brexit deal seriously.
This week in showdowns: Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rebuffed invitations to meet face to face with EU leaders, including France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, saying he won’t hold talks with them until they agree to drop the controversial “Irish backstop” provision from Britain’s withdrawal agreement with the EU.
To review, the backstop is designed to address what has become the stickiest sticking point in the withdrawal negotiations: the status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the only land border between Britain and the EU. In a “hard Brexit” scenario, Northern Ireland and the Republic would be subject to different customs and regulatory regimes, so goods crossing the border would have to be checked for compliance. Right now, the border is functionally nonexistent, and many in Ireland fear that if a hard border were imposed, it would reignite the sectarian conflict that plagued the region for much of the 20th century. The backstop would keep the border open by keeping the U.K. in a customs union with Europe until a system can be designed to check goods without a hard border. Brexiteers don’t like this because it would prevent the U.K. from negotiating its own independent trade agreements—one of the main reasons for Brexit in the first place.
Johnson and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, held their first phone call this week, during which the Taoiseach invited the prime minister to Dublin to discuss Brexit but reiterated that the backstop could not be removed.
The EU is sticking to its position that the backstop and the rest of the withdrawal agreement are not up for negotiation. It’ll discuss the nonbinding political declaration that accompanies the agreement, but the deal itself is the best the U.K. is going to get.
So, we appear to be at a standstill. Johnson’s position is that the U.K. will leave the EU on Oct. 31 no matter what, but he is adamant the he is working to avoid a no-deal Brexit. The British government announced an additional £2.1 billion to no-deal Brexit preparations this week, which is not encouraging.
This week in road trips: Johnson took a tour of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom this week—the “awesome foursome,” as he termed them. It was a little rough. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against Brexit in 2016, while England and Wales supported it, and there are not entirely far-fetched fears that a no-deal Brexit could trigger the union’s breakup. In Parliament last week, an MP from the pro-independence Scottish National Party sarcastically referred to Johnson as the “last prime minister of the United Kingdom.”
Johnson visited Scotland first, where he was greeted by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson writing in a newspaper column that she would not support a no-deal Brexit. Johnson was booed by protesters as he arrived for a meeting with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a member of the SNP and staunch Brexit opponent.
In a brief visit to Wales on Tuesday, Johnson was accused of dodging the media, was criticized by First Minister Mark Drakeford for a “deeply concerning lack of detail,” and met with farmers, one of whom accused him of playing “Russian roulette” with the fate of British agriculture, which depends heavily on exports to Europe. (He also held some chickens.)
In Belfast on Wednesday, he met with leaders of the five main parties in hopes of bridging the political divide that has left Northern Ireland without a government for the past 2 ½ years. It didn’t go that well, with leaders of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein accusing Johnson of being a “gofer” for the pro-London Democratic Unionist Party. Given that Johnson depends on the DUP for his majority in Parliament, it’s hard for him to make the case that he can act as an honest broker in the dispute.
This week in Parliament: In a by-election on Thursday, Johnson’s Conservatives lost the seat for the constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire in Wales to the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who made a pact with two other pro-EU parties in order to win the seat. This leaves the Conservatives and their coalition partners, the DUP, with just a one-vote majority in Parliament. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party won 10 percent of the vote, which would have been enough to put the Conservative incumbent over the top.
This razor-thin majority is not good news for Johnson as he prepares for a showdown with Parliament over either a new Brexit deal or pressing ahead with a no-deal Brexit. At least five Conservative MPs, whom the British media have inexplicably dubbed the “Gaukward Squad” after ringleader David Gauke, have made clear that they are willing to vote against the government in order to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
There are several methods by which Parliament could try to stop a no-deal. These include passing a law requiring Johnson to ask the EU for an extension—which the EU would still have to agree to—or holding a vote of no confidence, which, if it passed, would lead to either another group of MPs attempting to form a government or a new general election. It’s not clear if enough Conservative MPs would back a course of action that could result in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister.
Whatever path it chooses, Parliament won’t return from recess until the beginning of September, so there won’t be much time.
Time until next deadline: 91 days.