In Depth

New Brexit vote ‘would pile pressure’ on EU

PM considers putting new withdrawal proposals to Commons ahead of negotiations with European leaders

Boris Johnson has floated the idea that MPs could vote on his revised proposals for the Brexit withdrawal agreement before a crunch EU summit later this month, in a bid to pile pressure on EU leaders to agree a deal before the end of October.

In what the The Daily Telegraph says is a “potentially very big moment”, Johnson told Frank Field MP: “I will reflect on what he said about having a vote on it - it would be better to get a deal first.”

Downing Street unveiled its long-awaited plans to replace the Irish border backstop on Wednesday, proposing that Northern Ireland would stay in the European single market for goods but leave the customs union.

For his deal to pass through the Commons with a straight majority, Johnson will need the support of 320 MPs, “a target that appears to be increasingly viable”, says The Times.

In winning over DUP leader Arlene Foster, who has described the deal as “sensible and balanced”, the PM appears to have also brought the hard-line Brexiteer European Research Group on board. ERG chair Steve Baker told Newsnight that he believes the proposals could indeed get through the Commons if the EU agrees.

In “growing signs the prime minister is successfully pulling together a fragile majority of MPs to back his plan”, about 20 Brexit-reconciled Labour MPs have signalled they would also back a deal. “Building this sense of momentum is what Downing Street has been planning for weeks, with the aim of piling pressure on the EU to cut a deal,” says Politico’s Jack Blanchard.

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What about the EU?

Even if Johnson is able to demonstrate his deal could pass the Commons, it will amount to little if the EU does not agree – and the initial signs are not promising.

The European Parliament said it would veto Johnson’s Brexit proposals, warning that they are not “even remotely” acceptable as a solution to the Irish border problem.

Speaking after a meeting of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group, coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said the plans were “mainly a repackaging of the bad ideas that have already been floated in the past”.

The former PM of Belgium said it was “nearly impossible” to see how a deal could be secured on the basis of the proposals.

And the Irish government warned London that it “cannot possibly” support the plan in its current form, and encouraged the UK to come back with something “fit for purpose”.

Ireland’s deputy PM Simon Coveney said: “My judgment is that Boris Johnson does want a deal, and the paper published yesterday was an effort to move us in the direction of a deal ... but I agree that if that is the final proposal, there would be no deal”.

Among a number of “problematic points” identified by the European Commission is the creation of border infrastructure by any other name, which breaks the terms of the December 2017 agreement reached between the EU and the UK, a commitment that has already been passed into law in Britain.

Another is the veto it hands to Stormont. This requires not only a majority of Northern Ireland Assembly members but a cross-community majority to vote in favour of continuing the all-Ireland zone every four years on continued regulatory alignment. “In practice, every Assembly election will become a referendum on Northern Ireland's constitutional status,” says Stephen Bush in the New Statesman.

“This may have been necessary to win the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, whose opposition helped scupper May’s Brexit plan,” says Reuters’ Peter Thal Larsen. “But the Irish government seems unlikely to accept a vague provision that would give politicians across the border the power to unilaterally scupper the deal.” 

In his letter to outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker, Johnson said his ideas to replace the backstop amounted to a “broad landing zone” for a deal.

The Guardian reports “he will now be tested by the EU on how far he will compromise on the key areas of contention, in particular on the imposition of a customs border on the island of Ireland, a seeming red line for the new government”.

Brussels “will probably try to keep negotiations going”, says Reuters, “if only to minimise Johnson’s ability to blame Brussels if he fails to deliver Brexit by 31 October, as promised, or finds a way to crash out of the EU without a deal.

“But as long as the prime minister lacks a parliamentary majority, concessions are likely to be small. Any definitive showdown may have to until after Britain has again extended the Brexit deadline and Johnson’s defiant stance has been tested by voters in a general election.” 

A vote in the Commons to demonstrate the support for his deal might be the last option open to the prime minister to force Brussels into dropping its opposition to his proposals.

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