What was that again about a breakthrough?

Yesterday to the Sunday Times, the British side was talking up the prospect of neutralising the backstop and forecasting the emergence of a winning formula. Today EU sources were clear that they were keeping the backstop in reserve and fully charged, while back home, the reported formula was being attacked by Leave and Remain.  By Tuesday we should know if there is enough agreement to call an EU special summit on 21st November.

Full marks to Patrick Smyth of the Irish Times for working out the moves being played among the negotiators in the Brussels tunnel.( I suggest you read this with a cold towel pressed to the forehead), The Conservatives will not tolerate permanent membership of the customs union for GB. A split with the DUP is inevitable and the calculation  for   the formula passing the Commons is even more difficult .

A formula ( is being mooted) that would remove EU-proposed references to an exclusively Northern Ireland customs union framework from the backstop, but leave in place strict provisions for the North’s continued, and separate, regulatory alignment with the EU (and checks on the Irish Sea or in the marketplace on goods and animals travelling between the North and Britain.

This version of a backstop would mean that after transition – and before the much-promised comprehensive future relationship is negotiated – the UK would be obliged to remain in a customs relationship with the EU, but would also have to put regulatory barriers at Dover and Channel ports.

The removal, however accomplished, from the protocol of references to a Northern Ireland-only customs arrangement could make the Northern element of the backstop easier to sell to Tory unionism – the customs border is particularly toxic for reasons that are not altogether clear.

And it might be easier to impose on the DUP as a less-than-perfect but necessary solution to avoid a no-deal Brexit. A confrontation that everyone bar the DUP now believes will be necessary.

A “better” deal is one that would better safeguard the Irish frictionless border – one logically, it appears to most observers, that involves British continued membership of a customs union and most single-market regulations. The British continue to insist that will not happen.

Effectively, in other words, by signing up to an all-UK customs backstop the UK, though it does not admit it publicly, would be committing itself to a permanent customs union arrangement for itself for the sake of not signing up to separate arrangements for the North. As the DUP rightly keeps saying “the backstop is for good”.

In what is effectively a private acknowledgment of that reality, and fearful that the EU and Ireland could forever block the ending of the backstop by insisting on what the UK would see as an unrealisable standard for a “better” deal, British negotiators are understood to have been trying to explore the idea of third-party arbitration.

Clarity hardly looks likely by Tuesday does it?  The Guardian assesses the chances at 50:50. Glass half full or glass half empty?

EU officials do not rule out the possibility of the commission accepting that an all-UK customs union will replace the Northern Ireland-specific one, albeit with “deeper” clauses specific to the province. But that leap would require an admission from Downing Street that the customs union was effectively permanent, something unlikely to fly at home. It is a mess. But one French government official speaking for many in Brussels put it succinctly: “It is a British mess and they need to fix it.”The source said any hope of Northern Ireland-specific customs arrangements being removed would involve a “huge jump on the UK side”.

The official suggested that May would need to make a “calculation about what is sellable and how she sells it but it does not correspond to the buccaneering Britain of Bojo [Boris Johnson]

Writing in the Sun, “Bojo” has no doubts how he and his supporters will vote if May comes back with “temporary” all-UK membership of the customs union for the transition period.

If this is indeed the deal that is to be placed before Cabinet on Tuesday, it is an absolute stinker. Even after we leave – according to this so called deal – we will remain in a nonsensical “implementation period” in which we will be effectively non-voting members of the EU. We have gone along with the claptrap that this is essential – as the only way to avoid a hard ­border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Brexit was meant to be about taking back control. Under this plan – we surrender control to Brussels. As soon as MPs understand what is really at stake, I have no doubt that they will throw this deal out.

So thumbs down from Johnson on the right and the same from Tony Blair on the (sort of) left, as the former prime minister joins the growing numbers in favour of a second referendum.

We are approaching Brexit crunch time. Everyone is going to come under intense pressure to agree a “reasonable deal”, Labour MPs especially. They should resist. There is no “reasonable deal”. There is the pointless, the painful or fudge through postponement of the core issues. Each option is bad.

MPs should vote it down and give the people the final say.

 

 

 

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