A charm offensive from the unlikely figure of Boris Johnson could be all it takes to win the concessions we need
Of all the tall stories that Boris Johnson has told, his latest – about how he’ll secure a Brexit deal by Hallowe’en – is seen as the most laughable. There is a million-to-one chance of his failing to negotiate a Brexit deal, he says. Most Tories think it’s the other way around, that he stands a million-to-one chance of success. They back him because they think he’d leave without a deal if he had to. But the mood music in Europe is changing and there’s a decent chance of a breakthrough – for a Prime Minister sharp enough to take it.
The EU still likes to say the deal it offered to Theresa May cannot be “reopened” but this is a bit of a verbal trick. No one is seriously expecting a new 585-page deal to be negotiated. If a few sentences were added to the end, giving either side the ability to walk away – in the way EU members and Nato members can walk away – then Parliament would probably vote it through. The Northern Irish backstop is a problem, but alternatives are there. Agreement is tantalisingly close.
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Meanwhile, the cost of not doing a deal is becoming clearer. Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, had been saying that no-deal – however painful – would be better than more compromise with the Brits. But this week his finance minister spelt out what no-deal would mean for Ireland: three years of pain, 85,000 job losses, economic growth crushed and billions of euros in extra borrowing. Why go through all this if it could be avoided, by a bit of goodwill?
Crucially a new argument against no-deal is coming from Berlin. Forget the economic cost, it says: something far more important is at stake. The trade war between America and China is turning into a wider cold war, placing Europe under pressure from both sides. Europe can resist this pressure, but it needs scale. And Britain. With a Brexit deal, the EU and UK would be close and could act as a diplomatic block – deciding together, for example, what to do about Huawei’s 5G services or other suspiciously lucrative Chinese contracts. In short, how to fight the trade-and-tech wars.