Brexit: Boris Johnson is battling to reach a deal but hardliners already fear

Barely a year on, a decent chunk of that optimism has turned to frustration and agitation. Despite the fact Johnson has taken the UK out of the European Union and won a landslide election victory, there is fear the Prime Minister’s desire to end the Brexit story on a personal note of triumph is clouding his thinking.

In recent weeks, talks between London and Brussels have been uneasy. Both sides are indicating that negotiations are going nowhere and that the other is making unacceptable demands. Both have made clear that unless things change the time to walk away could come soon, meaning a no-deal crash out of the transition period on December 31.

In prepared remarks sent out prior to a speech Johnson is expected to give ahead of round 8 of EU negotiations which start on Tuesday, the Prime Minister called for an agreement with Europe by 15 October. “There is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point. If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on,” said Johnson.

However, some Euroskeptics are concerned that Johnson is laying the ground for concessions to get a last-minute deal that he can claim as a great victory, avoiding the economic fallout of a no-deal cliff edge. Others worry that recent ruptures are theater, designed to make any agreement appear such a feat of diplomacy it eclipses any concessions.

There is some basis for this fear. Johnson’s previous deal with the EU came after months of declaring that he would either renegotiate May’s deal or leave the EU without one. The clock ticked as no progress was made on the former; the latter seemed inevitable. Suddenly, a deal was reached in Brussels just 14 days before the no-deal deadline — a deal that looked an awful lot like the one struck by May that many Euroskeptics, including Johnson, hated and voted against.

Johnson’s moveable position on Brexit mattered less at the time, as this deal only covered how the UK would leave the EU, not the more permanent future relationship. The fact Johnson held his nerve and stood up to Brussels was enough evidence for many Euroskeptics that he’d do the same later on.

But the world is different now. It’s no secret that Johnson’s has had a difficult 2020 to date. His government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been criticized on numerous fronts. The UK is both the coronavirus capital of Europe and the country that’s suffered the deepest Covid recession of any major economy. He’s been forced to make a series of embarrassing U-turns in the face of pressure from politicians across the divide. A big victory for the government before the end of the year would doubtless be welcome.
Johnson's government has been forced to make a series of U-turns, including on A Level results after a national outcry.

People who have recently worked in government can see how this outcome might become reality. David Davis, a long-standing Brexiteer and the UK’s former Brexit secretary, thinks there are “three options which are equally likely”: no deal, lots of micro deals and a free trade agreement. “If we are to arrive at option three, then there will need to be lots more of these public demands and counter demands to smooth the path to compromise.”

Tim Montgomerie, who previously worked as an adviser to Johnson, says “they like to be the people that pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last minute, which right now would suit them perfectly. They don’t run marathons, they run sprints, so don’t have much of a long-term strategy. This makes a last-minute compromise on Brexit that can be claimed as a victory an attractive prospect I think.”

And as Anand Menon, Professor of international politics at King’s College London says, “at the moment it really will look like a success if he gets any kind of deal, regardless of the content. It’s absolutely the case that talking the likelihood of no deal because of EU intransigence will make it look like Johnson has achieved the impossible.”

Members of Johnson’s Conservative party see why this approach might appeal, even if it annoys Brexit hardliners in his party. “There would be a row with the Brexiteer purists, but he would carry with him the great majority of Leave-supporting Tory MPs if he declares it a triumph. Not to mention many of the former Labour voters in the north who voted for Johnson in 2019, who are less purist than Conservative leavers,” said a recent Conservative cabinet minister.

This calculation that Johnson might see merit in a public Brexit triumph combined with minimal risk of backlash from his backbenchers is what sources say is spooking the Brexit hardliners who used to support him.

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“Lots of MPs are expecting a huge concession in order to make a deal. They are reluctant to call out the government in public but are lobbying hard behind the scenes,” says a senior Conservative figure whose work in the party would be compromised by speaking on the record. “I think the government is talking up no deal to reassure hardliners they are being firm with Brussels…

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