Don’t overbid, Leo. This is as good as it gets – for now at least

A cabinet crisis averted and a British proposal sent at the last minute to Brussels, saying simply that the UK “expects” that any use of the backstop — which would see Britain remain part of the EU’s common external tariff and VAT area to avert a hard Irish border — would end by December 2021. It leaves intact Theresa May’s pledge and the DUP’s requirement not to allow any border down the Irish Sea. Not a new idea but in British political terms a momentous moment . The FT reports…

“We do not envisage the temporary backstop being in place in the run-up to the next general election,” said Mrs May, referring to the last possible date for a poll in June 2022. She added that the backstop plan was “unpalatable but, at worst, temporary”. In spite of Mrs May’s reassurances, one leading Eurosceptic pointed out that if the EU took the British proposal and turned it into a legal text, Britain could be tied to a customs union indefinitely. “It would not be good news.”

and slipped in….

Britain is expected to propose close alignment to EU single market regulations as part of the backstop, suggesting the UK would become a rule-taker and might have to accept European Court of Justice rulings and possibly make budget contributions to the bloc. Dublin gave a guarded welcome to Mrs May’s backstop plan. However, Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s premier, said he could not agree to an arrangement with a cut-off date. “It is not something that can be just time-limited.”

Leavers fear and Remainers hope that through this political turmoil,the final shape of Brexit and not only the backstop  is starting to emerge.  But is it consistent with the Irish and EU 27 version of the backstop?  Michel Barnier asked the question rhetorically today he will answer literally tomorrow. 

Is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border?

Does it respect the integrity of the single market and the customs union?

Is it an all-weather backstop?

Aides to Michel Barnier, the EU Brexit negotiator, said today that he “welcomed the publication of a new proposal”.

In a talk to interns in the European parliament, Mr Barnier said that “there is a huge and intense debate in UK politics about what could be another option” to the government’s red lines of leaving the single market and customs union.

“The Labour Party, House of Lords and part the business community have asked for a customs union. We are ready to work on this. All of these options are available including the Norwegian one, which is the closest integration with the EU,” he said.

Conservative Brexiteers will feel this is about as far as they can go to satisfy the demands of the Irish and the other EU  members before the main negotiations begin.

Even more important if the withdrawal terms are agreed will be the British proposals for the shape of the final deal. But if the EU prefers the softest of backstops, why agree to a harder final deal?

Boris Johnson the sidelined foreign secretary still in office but disgruntled, was fighting a rearguard action tonight, in freewheeling chat, recorded and  obligingly leaked to Buzzfeed:  thus far and no further.

There’s a high chance of Britain ending up with an arrangement that violates many of the Brexiteers “red lines”, keeping it “locked in orbit around the EU, in the customs union and to a large extent still in the single market,” Johnson said. “So not really having full freedom on our trade policy, our tariff schedules, and not having freedom with our regulatory framework either.”

That outcome was being pushed particularly by the Treasury, which Johnson said was “basically the heart of Remain”. It would mean the UK had left the EU without taking back control over its own affairs.

Clarifying his own red lines, Johnson said he would be willing to accept staying close to the EU for longer than March 2019, when it formally leaves the EU, but will not budge when it comes to the final terms of the future relationship.

“What they don’t want is friction at the borders. They don’t want any disruption of the economy. So they’re sacrificing all the medium and long-term gains out of fear of short-term disruption. Do you see what I’m saying? The fear of short-term disruption has become so huge in people’s minds that they’ve turned into a quivering wreck.”

“They’re terrified of this nonsense,” Johnson said. “It’s mumbo jumbo.”

Johnson gave a scathing response to warnings of chaos because of delays at Britain’s borders, which have included a Treasury analysis saying that disruption at Dover could lead to shortages of food and medicines if the UK leaves without a deal.

There would be disruption, Johnson said. “Yeah, of course. There will be some bumps in the road.”

But the warnings had been overblown.

He said the debate about solutions to the Northern Irish border had been blown completely out of proportion.

“It’s so small and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly, it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way. We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly.”

Johnson said the technology-based customs solution favoured by the Brexiteers in cabinet — known as “maximum facilitation” — was viable.

“Concentrate on maximum facilitation,” Johnson said. “That’s what we want. Solve the technical problem. We can easily find a solution that allows us to have trade that is frictionless as possible… with our continental friends and partners while still be able to do free trade deals. It’s not beyond the wit of man.”

Johnson disagreed with a claim by the head of HMRC that “max fac” would cost the UK economy up to £20 billion, by adding additional border checks for businesses. “No we don’t think that’s realistic at all. It’s out by a factor of 10 or 20,”

Johnson is playing for  victory or death but  his remarks contain a warning.  If the Brexiteers are panned and humiliated, the domesday option of no deal will start to look attractive to them again. And then where will all be, Ireland included?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London