Wednesday 11 September 2019 10:02 am

Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces ERG rebellion as sources hint at shift on backstop

Parliament has been shut down for the next five weeks – but Boris Johnson has just 50 days to get a deal and save his premiership.

At the same time, rebels on both sides are threatening to thwart him.

Read more: Parliament prorogued: Scenes of chaos play out in Commons

Working for the man

Despite what has been said in public, officials and MPs have been fairly frank that no work was going into alternative proposals to put in front of the EU. As recently as last week, officials would smile and shake their heads when asked what might emerge in place of the backstop. No deal was the only option in town.

But the anti no-deal law – which gained royal assent on Monday – and Boris Johnson’s failure to secure a General Election, has changed all that. Now, the Prime Minister must get parliamentary approval – either for a deal, or no-deal – by 19 October or face the humiliation of requesting an extension from Brussels, something he has said he would rather “die in a ditch” than do.

Efforts are being put into finding loopholes, although even loyal Tory MPs have privately dubbed this approach “weasley”. The rebel alliance are awaiting an attempt by Number 10 “to try and frustrate [the anti no-deal law] in the courts” – but this they believe will fail.

“Their Plan A was to leave without a deal, and they’ve been stopped,” says a source close to the group of former Conservative MPs. “Now we hear there is a live discussion about ditching the Cummings plan and going genuinely for a deal.”

Finally the wheels are moving – but the path forward is Escher-like and the room for error vast.

Time to ditch the DUP?

Johnson remains emphatic that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October – but he also said on Monday that leaving without a deal would be a “failure of statecraft”.

The EU wants “practical, operable alternatives” before it will consider any changes to the backstop – something Johnson is adamant has to go. So what are his options?

In Dublin on Monday the Prime Minister reiterated the trusted trader scheme, along with pre-clearance checks, as part of the alternative arrangements. He also said he was willing to recognise that agri-food is increasingly managed on a common basis across the island of Ireland.

Johnson met the DUP’s Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds yesterday, amid rumours that a Northern Ireland-only backstop could be put forward. Government sources argued that was wide of the mark, pointing back to Johnson’s agri-food comments as where the current line of thinking was.

But the Northern Ireland-only backstop comes up in conversation time and again. It has the backing of the EU, which makes it “feasible” before the Halloween deadline, according to one government insider.  

Others agree it is a likely outcome, pointing to the fact Johnson no longer needs the DUP’s confidence and supply agreement, given his own sabotaging of the Conservative majority. As one Tory said: “The DUP only get you 10 MPs and the size of the problem is much bigger than that.”

But what about the pro-Brexit MPs, who have fought against the backstop for the past two years?

They are likely to baulk at the idea of a concession like this, one strategist close to the group believes, particularly if Johnson repeats his threat to remove the whip. “If the backstop became Northern Ireland only, I don’t think that would cut the mustard.

They would need a lot of convincing the backstop had been killed off,” he says. “Last week the PM tried saying ‘what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’ – at that point, all you can say is he is sitting on a very sharp pencil.”

The source goes on to point out that Johnson has ended up boxed in, just as his predecessor was. “People will want to know – ok Boris, is this better than Theresa May’s deal? Or is it just May’s deal in lipstick? They haven’t fought for years to be fobbed off with a bit of light powder.”

Come on Arlene

Arlene Foster is the leader of the DUP, a Northern Ireland party that is the Tories' parliamentary ally
Arlene Foster is the leader of the DUP, a Northern Ireland party that is the Tories’ parliamentary ally (Getty)

After her meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, DUP leader Foster said she wanted “a sensible deal” and was “encouraged” by what Johnson had said while in Dublin.

But she made it clear that the DUP would not go quietly if the Northern Ireland backstop were his ultimate route.

“History teaches us that any deal relating to Northern Ireland, which cannot command cross-community support, is doomed to failure. That is why the Northern Ireland backstop is flawed,” she said.

Foster also noted that the PM himself had rejected such an idea previously, and had reiterated that position during their meeting yesterday.

Foster stressed it was “undemocratic and unconstitutional, and would place a tariff border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK”. “That would be unacceptable,” she added.

Halloween party?

Johnson might still be targeting a Halloween exit, but very few people in Westminster think he can get there. “It is now impossible to leave with a deal on 31 October,” says the pro-rebel source. “Andrea Leadsom – no Remoaner – was warning that you would need anything from three to nine months to legislate for Brexit. Now they are saying they can sort it all out in six sitting days? It’s just not plausible.”

Still there is a chink of light that an agreement might be struck in October, which will pave the way for an exit soon after. The EU has indicated that operable alternatives to the backstop will be considered. Some insiders believe that could be simply a “tweak” to the existing Withdrawal Agreement, which Johnson will trumpet as a concession.

That may be enough to convince those MPs who are genuinely desperate to avoid a no-deal.  

But how pro-Brexit MPs will react is critical. “If it was a rebellion of 10 odds and sods, who they could then deselect, it wouldn’t be that big a deal. But if Jacob [Rees-Mogg] votes against it that would be a strong signal to potential Brexit Party voters that it is Brino – Brexit In Name Only,” one insider says.

The Cummings factor

Dominic Cummings is the special adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Reuters)

MPs privately don’t have many nice things to say about Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, calling him a “thug” and a “bully”, arguing he is turning the party into a “shitshow”. About the most positive you hear is “battering ram” – effective, albeit at a cost.

With Johnson now backed into a corner, even government insiders are critical. Sources point to the weekend briefing about putting a Conservative candidate up against speaker John Bercow as one of a handful of recent tactical errors.

“People think he’s some kind of strategic genius, rather than just someone who said he’d outwit Dominic Grieve and didn’t,” says one.

But while things have moved beyond Cummings’ control, there is still the suspicion that anything could happen while he is at Johnson’s side.

Politics as (un)usual

So where does this all leave us? Remainers are clear. As Lib Dem peer Lord Newby told City A.M.: “Boris is now a prisoner of parliament, and we will therefore not leave on 31 October.”

But having been blocked from a no-deal, Johnson now faces the same problems as May: the only deal on offer will be unpalatable to a core faction within his party, meaning we could still lumber on without a resolution.

“I see no way out of this without an electoral event of some kind – whether that’s an election or a second referendum,” says the source close to the rebels. “There’s no keenness for that, but it’s the only way out.”

Yet private polling for the Tories makes for grim reading. City A.M. has been told about three different polls that suggest at best, the country could end up with another hung parliament.

An extension followed by an election exacerbates that with voters going both to the Brexit Party, making much of Johnson’s failed promises, and the Liberal Democrats, who are scooping up disenfranchised One Nation Tories unhappy with the sacking of the 21 rebels last week.

“All roads lead to Corbyn,” says one frustrated insider. “That is the worst case scenario,” says another MP. “I don’t care what [my colleagues] say, and forget about Brexit: Corbyn would do untold damage to the country.”

But having been blocked from a no-deal, Johnson now faces the same problems as May: the only deal on offer will be unpalatable to a core faction within his party, meaning we could still lumber on without a resolution.

Read more: Ex-Labour MP joins Liberal Democrats as anti-Brexit stance bolsters party

Ultimately, the Prime Minister may even have to resign – although it’s not even clear what that would do, other than remove Johnson from a problem largely of his own making.

The source close to the Remainer rebels insists there is no schadenfreude among those who have tried and failed to build consensus around a deal. “There is no glee,” he says. “Only frustration.”

Images: Getty