Over to EU on Johnson’s deal or no deal gamble
● Brussels vows to ‘examine proposals closely’ but says ‘problematic points’ remain ● Sturgeon says new plans are ‘designed to fail’ and still unacceptable to Scotland
Boris Johnson is closer than ever before to getting a Brexit deal past MPS after his plan for the Irish border won the support of the DUP, Tory Eurosceptics and a pair of Labour MPS – but the proposals now face a difficult examination in Brussels.
Resistance from the final 28 Brexiteer “Spartans” who rejected Theresa May’s Brexit deal three times appeared to be crumbling last night, leaving Mr Johnson just a handful of votes short of a majority.
In a letter to EU Commission President Jean-claude Juncker, the Prime Minister said he was offering a “fair and reasonable compromise” and said his plan to replace the controversial backstop represented a “broad landing zone, in which I believe a deal can begin
to take shape”. In a statement, the EU Commission welcomed what it called “positive advances”, but said “problematic points” remain.
“The delicate balance struck by the Good Friday agreement must be preserved,” the statement said.
The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, was even more downbeat, with a spokesman for the Taoiseach saying the plans “do not fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop”.
The Prime Minister spoke by phone last night with Mr Juncker and Mr Varadkar, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
EU governments will consider the plans ahead of a crucial Brussels summit that begins on 17 October, where an agreement must be rubber stamped to avoid the possibility of a nodeal scenario at the end of the month. Under the proposals, Northern Ireland would effectively remain under both UK and EU trade rules at least four years, with customs checks on goods crossing the border with the Republic of Ireland, and regulatory controls for those arriving from Britain.
The regime enters into force at the end of the post-brexit transition period, at the start of 2021, but would first need to be approved by the Northern Irish Assembly, which would also decide whether to renew the arrangements every four years.
An explanatory note published alongside the proposals states that “if consent is withheld,thearrangementswillnot enter into force or will lapse”.
The Stormont Assembly has not sat since devolved power sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed in 2017, but the potential for Northern Irish parties to veto the measures will be a source of concern in Dublin and Brussels.
That was highlighted in the EU statement, which said Mr Juncker “noted that there are still some problematic points that will need further work in the coming days, notably with regards to the governance of the backstop”.
Sinn Fein and the other main Northern Irish parties rejected Mr Johnson’s compromise. But despite appearing to breach the DUP’S previous red line on a barrier to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the party gave the plan its support.
“We believe this is a serious and sensible way forward to have engagement with the European Union in a way that allows us all in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and therefore we will be supporting this plan,” DUP leader Arlene Foster said.
And the chairman of the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteers, Steve Baker, signalled his approval with a tweet at the close of his party’s conference in Manchester that Mr Johnson was a “hero”.
Opposition parties rejected the government’s proposals for the Irish border, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeting that it was “hard to escape [the] conclusion that they’re designed to fail”.
And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the plan would “undermine the Good Friday agreement”. “It’s worse than Theresa May’s deal,” he said. “I can’t see it getting the support that he thinks it will get.”
But two Labour MPS representing constituencies in Leave-voting Stoke – Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell – indicated they would back a Brexit deal based on the plans.
Last night the EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told journalists: “There is progress. But to be frank, a lot of work still needs to be done to reach, to fulfil, the three objectives of the backstop – no border, allireland economy, and protecting the single market.
“The no-deal will never be the choice of the EU. Never. So we will continue to reach a deal and to work with the UK team.”
This Tory gathering has been all about Johnson -it’shis party now
There was a spontaneous chant of ‘Boris!’ before he even entered the conference hall. Moments earlier, there was even a vaguely Trumpian ovation to his father, Stanley - confirming he is the most colourful Johnson in a red corduroy jacket - and the is-she-isn’t-she first Lady of the UK, Carrie Symonds. And in a speech without a single policy announcement, the big reveal was to do with the only Johnson we haven’t heard from: his mother. “She voted Leave!” the Prime Minister bellowed.
This conference has been all about Boris Johnson, and the only thing Boris Johnson has to say: get Brexit done. Even that simple three-word mantra has struggled to be heard at times, what with
the talk of spaffing, thighgroping and lunchtime ‘technology lessons’ with friends. At the final before the Prime Minister’s speech, on getting more women elected, the comment from MP Gillian Keegan that “politics is a contact sport” felt risky.
The speech itself was a bizarrely subdued affair, with no sense of drama or occasion. The dodgy jokes about SNP leaders’ names sounding like fish and the shout-outs to the Cabinet in the front row gave it the atmosphere of a cruise ship comedy set. But there was no sense of disappointment in the crowd – they loved it.
Johnson’s cult of personality has taken over this party, and the only one putting up a fight was MP Geoffrey Clifton-brown. A member of the Conservative board being thrown out of his own conference 45 minutes before the Home Secretary declared they were the party of law and order sums up how impossible it has been for Tories to get away from their own dysfunction.
Wandering around Manchester were Brexit outriders you could never have imagined at a Tory conference under David Cameron – to be fair, though, their leader Dominic Cummings, a man with an actual hatred of the Conservative Party, is running the country.
This year’s Conservative conference resembled recent Labour gatherings in that the party’s own MPS didn’t really want to be there. One of the few who turned up, Andrew Bowie, was surgically attached to a microphone to do every broadcast.
Exactly a year ago, senior Scottish Tories were briefing that ‘Operation Arse’ would work in the shadows to block Johnson from walking into Downing Street.
The story was illustrated on the front of The Scotsman with a picture of a smiling Ruth Davidson striding across the conference stage. She’s gone, her stand against a no-deal Brexit has been demolished, and under Johnson, her party is unrecognisable. “We will honour your legacy,” the Prime Minister said in his speech. He must mean laying flowers on its grave.
0 Boris Johnson with his partner Carrie Symonds after delivering his keynote speech to delegates on the final day of the annual Conservative Party conference
0 An upbeat Prime Minister addresses the party faithful at the Conservative conference in Manchester yesterday as his plan for a deal to solve the Brexit impasse received a mixed welcome