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He says he wants no deal, but he’ll just give us May’s deal repackaged instead. Welcome to Boris’s ‘vassal state’

Sean O'Grady

Wouldn’t it be funny if, after months of trauma, Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt just ended up resuscitating Theresa May’s Brexit deal? I mean, yes, it’s a national tragedy, but it has a certain irony attached to it.

As all agree, the one thing that might – might – conceivably secure Britain a new, better deal would be a credible threat of no deal. Boris Johnson and, more equivocally, Jeremy Hunt want it put it back on the table. Can they?

No. Enter Tobias Ellwood. He may have a name that sounds like he’s a character out of Poldark, but is in fact a Tory MP (one of the more level-headed ones), and a junior defence minister. He says that about a dozen of his colleagues are prepared to bring down the “new” government in an early vote of no confidence – in order to force a Johnson/Hunt administration to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Ellwood backed Rory Stewart in the earlier stages of the leadership election, so we can guess who is behind the threat. They mean it.

It merely confirms what we’ve long known: the Commons won’t wear no deal and will find a way to block it, up to and including a no confidence motion backed by a phalanx of well-disciplined and smart rebel Tory MPs. Not even Anna Soubry (pre-defection) and Dominic Grieve voted against their own government, or even explicitly threatened to do so. Ellwood’s words have upped the ante on that side of the House. Big beasts such as Philip Hammond might add their weight to the cause.

Significantly, in a strange, Remainery-sounding interview on the Today programme, Hunt admitted that parliament will rule out no deal again, and that the new deal will take ages to achieve. This is a shift from his hard line stance of about a week ago that, faced with a choice between no deal and no Brexit on 31 October he’d choose no deal.

Given that the new prime minister will be “selected” around 23 July, and appointed by the Queen about the time the Commons rises for its absurdly long summer holiday on 25 July, the earliest realistic opportunity for a move to rule out no deal would be shortly after our tanned and rested MPs trudge back to work on 3 September. (I know, it’s a ridiculous way to run a country, but, faced with a choice between no deal, no Brexit or no holiday, you can guess which way they’re headed – to Tuscany, the Azores, the Bahamas…)

Of course, a Johnson government (assuming the cad gets in) could call the rebels’ bluff, and see the vote lost. But that wouldn’t necessarily mean an election. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, you need a two thirds majority in the Commons to have a general election. So Mr Johnson would have to appeal to Labour to facilitate a poll. That’s what Mrs May had to do in 2017. Given that a fresh election would risk annihilation for both parties, Labour might not oblige. Jeremy Corbyn might insist instead on having the opportunity to form a new minority government. Does Boris Johnson want to become leader of the opposition, and face Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister? Or call an election and submit to the whims of Nigel Farage?

We are getting ahead of ourselves. The very fact of the Ellwood Declaration, like a nuclear deterrent, should mean it never has to be used. Therefore there will be no hard Brexit.

Of course that doesn’t mean Brexit is finished, just that no-deal Brexit cannot happen. We can still have a softer Brexit, leaving with a deal, on agreed terms with the EU.

Implicitly, Mr Johnson agrees. In his latest Telegraph column, Mr Johnson declares that; “We are just over four months away from the legal date on which by law, we must leave the EU; and this time we are not going to bottle it….we are going to come out of the EU on October 31st. We can, we must and we will”.

Stirring stuff. But no mention of what kind of Brexit. No mention of no deal. No detail, as ever.

Fortunately the detailed work on a UK-EU deal has already been done, by someone called Theresa May: a Withdrawal Agreement, a political declaration and additional letters on Gibraltar and on the temporary nature of the Irish backstop. All done dusted and signed off by the EU.

Johnson has dismissed it as “defunct”, said that it leaves Britain a “vassal state”, and has promised to “disaggregate” it, but the May deal is all he may have, come September. Johnson, with the alibi that parliament has tied one arm behind his back, will have to return to the Commons with some warmed up version of the May deal, maybe with extra commitments in the Political Declaration, maybe with a longer transition period, maybe with some joint UK-Ireland-EU task force on the border question. Formally we would indeed be leaving the EU and possibly even by 31 October, if Johnson’s demands are trivial enough.

Secretly, given his wobbly Brexiteer credentials, Johnson might be secretly grateful for an excuse to abandon no-deal Brexit. In desperation, as a choice between the May/Johnson deal or no Brexit at all, MPs across the main parties might even now vote for it – with 26 Labour MPs, led by Caroline Flint (so she claims), making up the numbers Johnson would need for a Commons majority for Johnson’s “new deal”. If not, there is still the option of Johnson taking his proposal directly to the country in a second referendum.

In fact the only way we could end up with no deal is if President Macron obliges by vetoing any further extensions to the Article 50 process. I’m sure he’d love to expel the UK from the EU, but I don’t think the Germans, Dutch and Irish will let him. More likely, the next, inevitable, extension to Brexit will be granted by the EU on the strict condition of a fresh democratic process to resolve the issue in the UK – an election or a new referendum.

So there we have it. The May deal morphs into the Boris deal, and we all have to have a referendum on it because the EU insists on it. Win or lose, Boris will cling on as PM, and there will be no hard Brexit.

Welcome to Boris Johnson’s vassal state.