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He may play the rightwing populist, but dont be surprised if the prime minister ditches his determination to leave without a deal, says Guardian columnist Rafael Behr
In schlock horror movies there is a moment when the monster, assailed by every weapon and presumed dead, lurches back to life. And so Theresa Mays Brexit withdrawal agreement comes crawling from behind the closed doors of parliament, where it was killed at least three times.
Boris Johnson says he wants a deal and there is neither time nor diplomatic goodwill sufficient to craft a new one. Erasure of the backstop the Brexiteers big demand is not available. As a candidate for the Tory leadership, Johnson boasted that Brussels would yield once confronted with a UK government prepared to quit the bloc with no deal at all. Conversations in Paris and Berlin have disabused him of that notion.
The EU position, restated by Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach, in a press conference on Monday, is that the basic provisions of Mays deal would survive even a no-deal scenario. They would return as conditions for the opening of talks that Britain would crave to normalise relations with the continent.
Johnson stood next to Varadkar in Dublin, shuffling like a chastened child. He said that inability to reach a deal by 31 October would be a failure of statecraft. The phrase is revealing because the Tory leader has always fancied himself as a serious statesman, even if he doesnt look the part. That ambition has been superseded but not extinguished by admiration for the Donald Trump model of endless provocation. Last summer Johnson invited a private meeting of business leaders to imagine how Trump might handle Brexit: Thered be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think hed gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere.
Application of that theory has not gone to plan. Moderate Tories have proved less indulgent of unhinged leadership than their Republican counterparts, imposing a legal duty on the prime minister to reject a chaotic Brexit. Johnson could break the law, but that would carry a high risk of eviction from office martyring himself for beliefs that he doesnt hold firmly enough to justify the cost in personal discomfort.
Those who depict the Tory leader as a British Trump (including the US president himself) underestimate his capacity for cowardice. He also likes to be liked, which is why he promises contradictory things to different people. As mayor of London, he could be persuaded to support and oppose the same idea in consecutive meetings. I have heard from a number of sources how Johnson, as foreign secretary, asked officials to explain the problem with Brexit and the Good Friday agreement, and decided that the solution was to hide the border in the Irish sea. Northern Ireland could be an exclave of regulatory alignment with Brussels the original Northern Ireland-only backstop model proposed by the EU. Only when the DUP freaked out and hardline Tory backbenchers cried betrayal did Johnson recoil from customs checks at the port of Larne.
Reversion to this NI-only backstop is now the object of much speculation among seasoned Brexit-watchers. A notable side-effect of Johnsons decision to withdraw the whip from 21 Tory MPs is that their exile renders the 2017 confidence-and-supply deal with the DUP obsolete. Johnson is so far short of a majority that Arlene Fosters party cant get him over the line. That doesnt make it easier for the prime minister to ratify a Brexit deal, but it does remove a privileged power of veto from the unionist ultras.