Boris Johnson set the scene for a tense round of Brexit trade negotiations with the EU this week by declaring that no deal would be “a good outcome”, and confirming plans to undermine Britain’s existing exit treaty with Brussels.
The omens for a trade deal, as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier prepared to head for London on the Eurostar on Tuesday, were hardly propitious. As if anyone had missed the tough message, Mr Johnson wrote to Conservative supporters vowing: “I will not back down.”
The Financial Times’s revelation that Mr Johnson is proposing a British law to override sections of last October’s exit treaty relating to Northern Ireland — an international agreement — has prompted some to conclude that an acrimonious separation when the Brexit transition period ends on December 31 is now likely.
“I’d put a deal at no higher than 40 per cent,” said one former cabinet minister, ahead of the eighth formal round of trade talks. Others in the Johnson inner circle say the chances of Britain leaving the EU with a free trade agreement are lower than that.
From Westminster to Brussels, a view has taken hold in some quarters that Mr Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings — architect of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign — is masterminding a strategy from his new “mission control” office in Whitehall to bring the talks crashing down.
It is a compelling narrative, but there are many who take an alternative view and believe that Mr Johnson is cranking up the rhetoric before making the compromises needed to get a trade deal — just as he did in 2019 before striking the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
One senior cabinet minister close to the prime minister said: “He will always try for a deal. He likes consensus.” Another member of the government said: “He won’t want to be seen as failing and wants a deal.”
One Whitehall official said: “As always, Dom is the devil on Boris’s shoulder but there are other more sensible people telling him a deal can be done.” In the UK Treasury, which wants a trade deal to spare the British economy from further Brexit-related damage, there is no sign yet of panic.
One government official said: “If someone had told you six months ago that there was still two months to go to get a deal and the only outstanding issues were fish and state aid, you’d have taken that. Wouldn’t you?”
The prime minister sounds relaxed about no-deal in private as well as in public. But the pressure on him to deliver a trade deal is mounting, and it is not just rooted in economics.
There is a question of competence: Mr Johnson is widely seen to have mishandled the coronavirus pandemic and will be keen to show he can deliver a Brexit deal. A bitter rupture with the EU would strengthen calls in anti-Brexit Scotland for a second independence referendum.
Steve Baker, former Brexit minister and a leading Eurosceptic, said the EU would have to compromise on its demands for a say over Britain’s future subsidy regime, but said: “I’m confident he would prefer to get a deal.
“Boris wants to take a place in the pantheon of great prime ministers, alongside Churchill or Thatcher. There’s only one way he can do that and that is to deliver a Brexit of which we can be proud.”
Nothing in the British rhetoric of recent days suggests a deal is impossible. Rather it is intended to increase pressure on Mr Barnier and EU member states to recognise UK “sovereignty” over fish and the government’s ability to subsidise parts of the economy.
However Mr Johnson’s plan to override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol agreed with the EU last October appeared to be a departure from the “blame Brussels” strategy: to some it was so transparently a breach of trust that it must have been intended to blow up the talks.
It was notable that the Johnson government’s reaction to the FT’s disclosure of the plan was to try to control the potentially catastrophic fallout for the trade talks, insisting the changes were technical and “limited”. Significantly Mr Barnier did not immediately cancel his Eurostar ticket.
“When it was being discussed last week people were aware of the sensitivities,” said one UK official close to the discussions who insisted that time was running out for the publication of the UK internal market bill before the end of the transition period on December 31.
Despite the provocative nature of the plan, which would give British ministers powers to interpret parts of the Northern Ireland deal struck with the EU, two officials insisted it was not a deliberate wrecking tactic. “It wasn’t being discussed in those terms,” said one.
David Frost, Britain’s chief negotiator, will have some explaining to do when Mr Barnier arrives in London on Tuesday. And while neither side believes there will be a breakthrough in the talks this week, a full-scale breakdown is seen as a possibility.
“What [is ] the point of getting you to pay lip service to joint commitments if we know you are already crossing your fingers behind your back?” asked one EU diplomat.
But there is still time. Mr Johnson wants a deal wrapped up before a European Council meeting on October 15-16, although such deadlines are notoriously flexible; the prime minister had previously demanded a deal by the end of July.
Negotiators on both sides believe an agreement on fishing quotas can be reached, leaving the single issue of state aid to be resolved. Mr Johnson is expected to set out some limited principles next week of a new regime, promising that Britain will not become a “high-subsidy” economy.
Those close to Mr Johnson admit they do not know which way the prime minister will jump. “It’s quite likely he doesn’t know,” said one Tory MP, recalling how the prime minister decided his stance on Brexit by writing two contradictory newspaper columns.