It’s been a big week in politics for people denying or just ignoring the thing they just said. So in that spirit, remember all the times I confidently wrote in this column that there was basically no chance for Boris Johnson to reach a new withdrawal agreement with the EU? No, you don’t. I would never have written something like that. Here’s This Week in Brexit:
This week in deals: On Thursday, after marathon negotiations heading up to this week’s European Council summit, the U.K. and the EU announced that they had finally reached a deal on a revised withdrawal agreement, perhaps the most important diplomatic achievement ever announced via emoji:
This deal, in itself, is a big deal! Just last week, sources within 10 Downing St. saw any agreement as “essentially impossible.” So what changed? Was that scenic walk Johnson and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar took through the manor grounds last week really all it took?
First, some caveats are in order. Calling this a “new” agreement, compared with the one Theresa May negotiated, is an exaggeration. Ninety-five percent of the 293-page agreement is the same. The changes mostly only apply to the controversial “Irish backstop.”
The first rule of Brexit club is that “never” never means never. EU leaders have been maintaining for months that the May agreement was the final agreement and that they had absolutely no intention of reopening discussion on the backstop. Then they reopened discussion on the backstop.
Let’s explain the ol’ backstop one last time: In order to prevent a hard border with customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the original withdrawal agreement stated that the U.K. as a whole would remain in the EU customs union until such a time as alternative methods could be found to check goods moving across the border.
Under the new agreement, the backstop is scrapped. The U.K. as a whole will leave the customs union. This is a big win for Brexiteers as it will allow the U.K. to negotiate its own trade agreements outside the EU.
The catch is that while Northern Ireland will technically be out of the customs union, it will continue to operate under EU customs rules. In practice, this means that goods being sent from the island of Great Britain to Northern Ireland will have to be checked at points of entry. If there’s a chance those goods could be sent on to the Republic, duty will have to be paid on them. This concession was necessary to get Dublin on board with the deal.
The deal also gives the Northern Ireland assembly, known as Stormont, the right to vote on whether to continue with this arrangement every four years. One potential slight problem with this: The deadlocked Stormont assembly has not actually been operational since January 2017. It’s also a bit ironic since a major argument for May’s deal was that the backstop would only be temporary. Under Johnson’s, it could very well be permanent.
All this might sound very technical and minor, but the deal could effectively create a permanent economic border down the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., something both May and Johnson had vowed never to do. It’s a big concession, and a potentially fatal one for the deal.
This week in Parliament: Johnson has defied expectations this week by coming home from Brussels with a deal. But he still has to get that deal approved by Parliament, something that May failed to do three times. There’s going to be a special do-or-die session of Parliament on Saturday, and it’s going to be very, very tight.
By striking this deal, Johnson basically sold out his key allies, the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP, which controls 10 seats in Parliament, is a right-wing party that draws its support from Northern Ireland’s Protestant community and strongly opposes any political or economic separation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. That makes the new customs arrangement a nonstarter for them.
This is not good for Johnson. The Conservatives have relied on the DUP for a majority in Parliament since the 2017 general election. On the other hand, after a series of defections, expulsions, and elections losses, the Conservatives haven’t had a majority even with the DUP, which means Johnson is going to have to cobble together votes from a number of parties and factions with those parties.
May’s deals failed to win approval mainly because she couldn’t win over the hard-line Brexiteers in her own party who objected to the backstop. A lot of those hard-liners also vowed not to turn their backs on Northern Ireland. On the other hand, now the backstop is gone, they trust Johnson more than they did May, and rejecting this deal likely means another delay. It’s going to be hard for them to say no.
There are also the more moderate former Conservative who either left or were booted out of their party over their opposition to a no-deal Brexit. These are likely to split.
The opposition Labour Party is opposed to Johnson’s deal, as are the smaller hard-line Remainer parties, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. But at least a few Labour MPs who represent pro-Leave districts are likely to split with their party and vote for the deal.
According to an analysis by the Financial Times, as it stands now, 321 MPs are likely to vote against the deal with 318 supporting it. In other words, it could go either way.
Further complicating things, there’s a new bill being put forward by ex-Tory MP Oliver Letwin that would force the government to ask for an extension while amendments on the agreement are debated, so there’s a real chance now that the big anticipated vote on Johnson’s deal might not even happen.
This week in extensions: If the deal passes, the U.K. will leave the EU on Oct. 31, and I will find something new to do with my Friday mornings. If it fails, things will get very mess in a hurry.
Under the law known as the Benn Act, passed last month, Johnson is required by law to write to the EU asking for an extension if he can’t reach a deal and get it approved by parliament by Oct. 19—that’s Saturday.
Johnson has indicated that he will comply with the letter of the law, but he might try to circumvent it by—to take just one possibility—writing a second letter saying that he does not actually think Brexit should be extended. The Letwin bill might derail that plan.
Then, the ball is in the EU’s court as to whether to grant an extension. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker appeared to rule any additional extensions out this week telling reporters “it has to be done now” and that there would not be “any kind of prolongation” after this deal. French President Emmanuel Macron also says he does not think an extension would be granted.
If we take them seriously, that means that if Parliament doesn’t approve Johnson’s deal on Saturday, the result will be the U.K. leaving without a deal on Oct. 31. We should not take them seriously.
These warnings are likely an attempt to put pressure on Parliament on Johnson’s behalf. Nothing is certain, but it’s likely that these leaders would grudgingly grant another extension if asked.
If that happens, the most likely scenario back in the U.K. is a new general election, where Johnson and the Conservatives will run on his deal, the smaller parties will run on reversing Brexit, and the Labour Party will attempt to figure out what its position is.
But let’s cross that bridge when we get to it. First, we need to get through Saturday.
Days until current Brexit deadline: 14