For rather a long time now (and it feels like even longer) I and others have been saying that both Boris Johnson and Theresa May before him faced a fundamental problem: that any prospective deal for Britain to leave the European Union would be either too “soft” for the hard Brexiters or too “hard” for the pro-Europeans.
Whichever way they moved, they were likely to lose more votes than they gained. As I put it last November, in one of many examples, “a fresh agreement might produce a slightly different hostile majority, but it will be just as hostile.”
Has Johnson now managed to square that circle?
What Johnson has done is basically accept a deal that’s been available for the last two years, but which May’s government said it would never countenance. It involves going “hard” Brexit as far as the island of Great Britain is concerned – scrapping the “backstop” and scheduling a definite departure from the single market and customs union by the end of 2020 – at the price of going “soft” on Northern Ireland, which was the thing the EU cared most about.
Northern Ireland will, for practical purposes, stay in the single market and the customs union indefinitely. No hard border will be established between it and the Republic of Ireland unless its own parliament votes for it, which is unthinkable. Most probably, the arrangement would set Ireland on a path to reunification.
How Johnson ever imagined this might be acceptable to the Democratic Unionist Party, whose whole reason for being is to fight Irish unity, is unclear. But the DUP duly disabused him of any such notion.
If May had done this deal, and put it to the parliament that she inherited from David Cameron after the 2016 Brexit referendum, there’s a good chance it would have gone through. Most people were resigned to Brexit happening, and it would have been difficult to rally much opposition to it.
But the lapse of time since then, including the two extensions already made to the exit date, has given heart to opponents of Brexit. Johnson’s antics have split the Conservative Party, driving out the dissidents whose votes he now needs, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposition has become both more confident and more strongly pro-“remain”.
Most significantly, the snap election that May called in 2017, far from improving her negotiating position, weakened the Tories’ position in parliament and made them dependent on the DUP for survival.
The DUP’s ten votes in the Commons will be vital when Johnson’s deal comes up tomorrow. But there’s more to it than just their votes. Because the hard Brexiters have become used to working and voting with the DUP, some are likely to follow its lead and oppose the deal. And Johnson’s ability to attract votes from Labour instead is severely limited.
Corbyn, as usual, has a delicate balance to strike. The best result for him politically would be a chaotic “no deal” Brexit that came about in a way he couldn’t possibly be blamed for. But that prospect, already dim, now seems to have vanished. Instead he has the choice of letting Johnson score a political triumph, or else take the risk of blocking it and see what happens next.
Whatever happens, the continuing reality is that there is no sustainable majority for any government in the present House of Commons, so an election cannot be long delayed. If Johnson can get his deal through first, it seems probable that a general (if rather unrealistic) relief at the whole thing being over would propel him to victory.
In the more likely event that the deal is blocked tomorrow, the outlook is far more uncertain. There may be a caretaker government; there may be a constitutional crisis. The EU may grant a further extension to allow an election to be held, and an election may or may not produce a clear majority for or against hard Brexit.
But one thing at least now looks clear: except for a handful of irreconcilables, the Brexiters are now committed to a particular model. After three years of uninformatively saying “Brexit means Brexit”, they have finally got an answer when asked what it is that they actually want.
Democracy therefore demands that that model should be put to a referendum to see if the British public really wishes to leave on those terms. But the path to that result is still a difficult one.