Boris Johnson on Wednesday finally published the plan he hopes will end Britain’s three-year Brexit agony, winning plaudits from Eurosceptics at home but prompting serious doubts about whether it could unlock a deal with the EU.
Mr Johnson closed his Conservative party conference with a flourish, despatching to Brussels what he called “fair and reasonable” proposals to address the vexed issue of the Irish border, intended to broker an exit deal by October 31.
The prime minister’s allies said Mr Johnson would negotiate with Brussels, but if his plan was rejected outright he would break off all talks and start preparing for a no-deal exit. He could also refuse to attend an EU summit next month and fight any future election blaming Brussels, opposition parties and Remainers for stopping Brexit.
The plan is highly contentious, replacing Theresa May’s “backstop” plan — intended to maintain an open border in Ireland — with the creation of two new borders: a customs frontier in Ireland and a new regulatory frontier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party signalled it could accept the new system — which would see the region adopt EU regulations for goods, agriculture and food — provided the Northern Ireland assembly gives its consent every four years.
Steve Baker, head of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, said he would support the new deal if the DUP followed suit. “On the union it’s clear to me we don’t have a right to trump the DUP,” he said.
Mr Johnson can now reassure the EU that he has united his party and its Northern Irish supporters in parliament and stands a reasonable chance of passing a rewritten Brexit treaty through the House of Commons. The big problem is that his proposals fall far short of satisfying the EU’s demands to protect the all-island economy, north-south co-operation and the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Johnson’s proposal, delivered to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday afternoon, throws up a particular problem for the EU because it creates a new north-south customs border.
Although Mr Johnson told the Tory conference that no physical infrastructure would be needed, the EU fears the Northern Ireland border would badly disrupt the local economy. The porous nature of the frontier proposed could at the same time provide an open door to smugglers seeking access to the single market.
Brussels and Dublin point out that new technology and other systems to manage the border are not yet available and they also worry that the “consent” of Stormont might amount to a veto over any new arrangements at the border.
EU leaders responded cautiously, with Mr Juncker noting some “problematic points” after receiving the proposals. He reiterated EU demands that all of the objectives of the former backstop be achieved under the new regime.
Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar delivered a cool response to Mr Johnson’s plan earlier, telling the Dublin parliament the proposal was “not encouraging”. In a statement after the two prime ministers had spoken, the taoiseach’s office said the proposals “do not fully meet” the agreed objectives of the backstop.
“However, he indicated that he would study them in further detail, and would consult with the EU institutions, including the [Brexit] task force and our EU partners,” the statement said.
Brussels fears the proposals will prove economically destabilising to Ireland and enormously difficult to turn into a practical reality in under two years.
Much now depends on whether the two sides are prepared to compromise. Mr Johnson insists he will never allow Northern Ireland to remain in the EU customs union or to give ground on the issue of consent.
His allies fear that the EU27 will refuse to engage with the plan, believing that if they say No to Mr Johnson, he will be forced to seek an extension to the Article 50 exit process; an election or a second referendum would then follow.
Mr Johnson’s team speak of the “danger of illusion” and that if Mr Johnson’s Brexit plans are thwarted he will go to the country with a hard “no deal” Brexit message and win comfortably.
Mr Johnson told the Tory conference he was determined to see through a no-deal exit if necessary. “After three and a half years, people are beginning to feel they are being taken for fools, and they are beginning to suspect there are forces in this country that simply don’t want Brexit delivered at all,” he said.
The prime minister meanwhile announced he would suspend parliament next Tuesday ahead of a Queen’s Speech on October 14, when a new legislative programme will be set out by the monarch.
A short “prorogation” between parliamentary sessions is common, but Mr Johnson’s attempt to close down parliament for five weeks before the Queen’s Speech was thrown out by the Supreme Court last month.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne and Mehreen Khan
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