“Two sides can play the blame game.” Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron didn’t use these words as they smiled their way through their first meetings with Boris Johnson since he became prime minister. But the words reflect what the German and French leaders were really up to.
They judged that Johnson’s visits to Berlin and Paris were aimed at paving the way for him to blame the EU for a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. “This trip was all about his excuse: he tried for a deal but the unreasonable EU rejected it,” one European diplomat told me. The EU is right to smell a rat.
Yet I think Boris is still pursuing a twin-track approach: aim for a deal, but go hard for no deal if that doesn’t work. He will delay switching the points until the last possible moment.
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My hunch is that he is more likely to take the line marked no deal. But the chances of a last-minute diversion to a deal increased slightly this week. Merkel’s remarks on Wednesday about finding a solution within 30 days were ridiculously over-hyped by pro-Brexit newspapers. She clarified them on Thursday.
To be fair, Johnson’s aides did not overspin Merkel’s words. They know that conciliatory language from the German chancellor does not necessarily translate into action, as David Cameron and Theresa May found to their cost. Similarly, Macron’s bonhomie was accompanied by a warning that the Irish backstop is “indispensable”. Crucially, there was no change of policy by either leader. Shrewdly, they put the ball back in Boris’s court, giving themselves a counter-attack if he blames them for no deal. If he cannot show that his vague plans to replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements” and additional “commitments” are workable, they will blame him.
Boris’s first foray into EU territory went better than some of his allies had expected. He will reap one benefit. The prospect of a deal, however slim, will make Conservative MPs who oppose no deal less likely to back a vote of no confidence in the government when the Commons returns on 3 September. Tory whips will have a new card to play: warning potential rebels they risk scuppering an agreement, and ending up with the very no-deal Brexit they want to prevent.
Jeremy Corbyn, under pressure from other opposition parties, will be tempted to table a no-confidence vote when parliament resumes. Merkel’s 30-day target means he should wait. As one senior MP involved in cross-party talks to stop no deal put it: “There’s no chance of a no-confidence motion passing in September now. We should wait until October. It will work only if we are close to the cliff edge.”
However, MPs should not be thrown off the scent by overexcited talk of a deal. They should still try to pass legislation ordering the PM to seek an extension to the UK’s EU membership beyond 31 October. There’s no time to waste; such a law will probably still be needed to avoid the chaos of crashing out. If there is a deal, the EU could simply refuse the UK’s request.
As Johnson heads to Biarritz for this weekend’s G7 summit, an EU deal – not his inevitable love-in at his first meeting as PM with Donald Trump – should be uppermost in his mind. He should view his first talks with another president – the European Council’s Donald Tusk – as equally important. Avoiding no deal, and securing a long-term trade pact with the EU, will matter much more to the UK economy than a US trade agreement.
Boris’s chances of clinching an EU deal will be reduced if Trump pulls him away from the European position on issues like Iran. The US president will certainly try to do that and persuade the UK not to allow the Chinese giant Huawei a role in providing its 5G mobile network. UK officials are nervous that Trump’s transactional approach will drag such matters into the trade talks. The UK turning its back on an Iran nuclear deal it was instrumental in forging would make a nonsense of Johnson’s pledge to maintain close security links with “our European friends and partners”.
The test for Boris in Biarritz is not whether he kickstarts a UK-US trade agreement, but whether he improves the prospects of a more immediate and important deal much closer to home.