The PM is rumoured to be considering this plan but the obstacles remain too greatby Raphael Hogarth / September 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
Boris Johnson insisted during the Conservative leadership campaign that the Brexit withdrawal agreement struck by his predecessor needed more than mere keyhole surgery. He wanted full amputation of the Irish “backstop,” the part of Theresa Mays’s deal that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU and Northern Ireland in parts of the single market if the two sides could not agree a future trade deal to keep the Irish land border soft. “No to time limits or unilateral escape hatches or these kind of elaborate devices, glosses, codicils and so on which you could apply to the backstop,” he told a leadership hustings audience. “I think the problem is very fundamental […] It needs to come out.”
He set expectations high, and his party’s backbenchers have been giddily raising them even higher. In fact Mark Francois, a Tory MP and a member of the pro-hard Brexit European Research Group (ERG), said in July that “if there were any attempt to revive the Withdrawal Agreement, even without the backstop, the ERG would vote against it.”
Yet there are now excited whispers that Johnson’s negotiating team may be working on something backstop-like, poised to rebadge it as the first part of a bumper free trade deal. “We recognise that for reasons of geography and economics, agri-food is increasingly managed on a common basis across the island of Ireland,” the prime minister told the House of Commons at the start of September. “We are ready to find a way forward that recognises this reality.” In other words, Northern Ireland could keep applying single market rules on food, leading to checks across the Irish Sea if Great Britain were to ditch those rules.
The prime minister’s remarks have raised hopes in some quarters that he may be ready to pivot to a backstop that applies only to Northern Ireland, and has no application in Great Britain. The EU has said that such a deal would be a runner with Dublin and Brussels—in fact, it is what the European Commission first proposed in February 2017. There are also new political incentives for the UK government to leave with an agreement, and soon: now that the so called “Benn Act” is on the statute book, the only alternatives to a deal…