On Wednesday, prime minister Boris Johnson delivered his party’s major conference speech and achieved what in any other year would seem downright absurd: It did not contain a single new policy announcement.
Usually, party leaders use these big, set-piece speeches to reveal a whole host of crowd-pleasing policies. You hopefully get rousing cheers and cutaways to the devoted party-faithful clapping like seals.
Johnson instead gave what sounded like a pre-election stump speech. Why? Because Brexit’s endgame is getting a little clearer.
Think of it this way: If Brexit were an (awful) game of chess, with Boris Johnson and the European Union staring at their pieces, the UK prime minister has finally moved a piece.
Let’s see if we can break it down for you.
Boris Johnson’s new Brexit plan would see Northern Ireland stick to the European Union’s strict regulations on agriculture, food, and all goods, while the rest of the UK could go off and set its own.
However, Northern Ireland would at the same time leave the EU's customs territory and tax regime, which creates an old-school customs border.
That requires checks. However, Johnson wants the checks to take place away from the actual border with the Republic of Ireland.
His plan would also make Northern Ireland's executive – which has not sat for two and a half years, and that’s a whole other story – and its assembly to agree to the arrangements every four years.
Government officials insist Johnson’s new proposal is serious and that means a significant compromise from the UK. They insist this is the UK’s final offer, and if the EU is not willing to consider it, the prime minister will go all out for a no-deal Brexit.
“This will be the final offer,” Downing Street briefed journalists on Tuesday night.
But elsewhere, the government’s stance is that of a shifty guy winking with his fingers crossed behind his back. For a start, many, not least on the Northern Irish side, are dubious about the practicalities of the plan as it stands.
In a pre-speech interview in the Sun, Johnson said he would look at any counteroffer made by the EU, but in his conference speech, there was no attempt to claim this was “the final offer”.
Johnson’s allies are privately conceding that what they send to Brussels is extremely unlikely to be accepted. But they also insist they’re not deliberately giving the European Union something they know they will reject out of hand, that would give them a convenient excuse to pursue no deal.
The preference, according to government sources, is for the European Union to engage in further talks over the next few days and see if a compromise can be found. They just can’t get a flat no.
At the same time, with all this going on — and MPs talking openly about the death threats they receive — there are grim warnings from “government insiders” about things worsening if there were a second referendum.
SO. That’s the first layer of all the scheming. Here’s the second: As things stand, the most likely outcome is that the UK and the EU do not reach an agreement.
Now, Johnson has insisted that he won’t seek a Brexit delay by sending a letter to the EU requesting another extension. But if you remember, the so-called “Benn Act” passed by Parliament last month demanded that the government must send the extension letter if a deal is not agreed by Oct. 19.
Johnson’s aides insist he will find a way of trying to prevent an extension by going “straight through” the Benn Act — that is, convincing the EU not to agree to an extension.
Remember, the EU has said it would only agree to an extension if Johnson asked for it, and with a clear reason — for example, an election. And if Johnson doesn’t ask, he will likely end up in court.
That’s why many in government are privately urging the prime minister that he should do everything he can to show he doesn’t want to delay Brexit. If he can show that he was forced into it by Parliament and the courts, the thinking goes, he can agree only to a short delay.
It would allow time for a general election, where Johnson can pitch himself as the candidate who wants to deliver Brexit and claim his opponents are the big, bad Brexit blockers.
The government wants to give the EU 10 days to consider its proposals and negotiate a deal.
While that is going on in Brussels, Johnson wants to suspend Parliament again so he can reopen a new session with a Queen’s Speech. In the background, the anti-Brexit “Rebel Alliance” MPs who want to stop no-deal are plotting their next steps.
The Scottish Nationalist Party wants to call a confidence vote in Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn wants to become the caretaker prime minister in order to secure a Brexit extension and new negotiations, but Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson says the interim prime minister can’t be Corbyn — she wants someone more neutral. You see the problem here.