Negotiations are the way each side works out what the other really wants. That is obvious. Slightly less obvious, but equally important, is the fact that they also force each side to work out what it wants.
In most Brexit matters, Boris Johnson is guided by the principle that one should study Theresa May’s example – and then avoid it. Although she publicly stated early on that “No deal is better than a bad deal”, Mrs. May accepted the framing and sequencing of negotiations that Brussels proposed. She did not know what she wanted. So the EU understood from the start that she did not mean what she said. A bad deal was therefore inevitable and duly arrived. That is why she was forced from office.
As foreign secretary, Boris watched these events unfold, and resigned. He then became party leader and Prime Minister. He got the first half of a Brexit deal, partly by insisting that no deal was a genuine possibility. He resoundingly won the ensuing general election by saying “Get Brexit done”. That victory was a year ago today, and tomorrow is the deadline for agreement – or lack of it – between Britain and the EU over the Brexit second half, our future trading relationship after we leave the single market and customs union on December 31.
It is not credible that Boris will use the weekend of the anniversary of his victory to capitulate.
Cynical though one must be about some of his promises, doubtful though one sometimes feels about his strength of purpose, such a surrender would not make sense. It would end his political career.
I must admit that when the Prime Minister flew off for dinner with Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday, I feared he was breaking his “Don’t do a Theresa” rule. It reminded me of her embarrassing dawn flight to Brussels three years ago to “seal a deal” that could not work. Boris has additionally promised to fly anywhere – Berlin, Paris – which might help. Are such journeys really necessary? It would be better if he stayed put and avoided getting into a compromising position alone in a room with any EU leader.
His leading officials, Lord Frost and Oliver Lewis are long-marchers from Vote Leave days. They know what they are doing. But so far, no harm has come of his journey. And he does, to be fair, have an interest in showing the wider world that he will not be the one to collapse the talks.
Compared with the latter half of 2019, Boris is, on the European issue, in an oddly strong position today. Then, he had no reliable majority in a Parliament that was trying to usurp executive power. Most MPs opposed a genuine Brexit, but his party members, and the original decision of 17.4 million voters, supported it.
He was in the tightest of corners. He got out of it with the Withdrawal Agreement which the EU – to many people’s surprise – granted him. It contained problems for the future relationship, notably about Northern Ireland, but it did the trick.
Now, the Prime Minister has an 80-strong majority. His reputation may have been dented by erratic policy over Covid-19, but no one else within or outside his party is about to take over, and it is four years until the next general election.
There have been more fuss about Ireland, and the Government’s threat to break international law to defend our customs territory; but this week, the clouds parted, revealing an Irish rainbow. The EU conceded on the Protocol: it will ensure that nearly 100 percent of goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will pay no tariffs. As it had secretly planned, the Government duly withdrew the relevant clauses from the UK Internal Market Bill.