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How likely is a Brexit breakthrough after Boris Johnson’s meeting with Leo Varadkar?

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Boris Johnson today tried to breathe new life into his dying Brexit plan as he met Leo Varadkar for crunch talks. 

The showdown between the PM and Irish Taoiseach ended with the two men agreeing that ‘they could see a pathway to a possible deal’. 

The meeting had been viewed as the last chance to put Britain and the bloc on the path to an agreement ahead of an EU summit next week. 

The unexpectedly optimistic joint statement issued by Mr Johnson and Mr Varadkar suggests that there may yet be hope of avoiding either a No Deal divorce or another Brexit delay. 

Mr Varadkar has promised to report back to the EU while Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will meet the EU’s top negotiator Michel Barnier tomorrow. 

if progress can be made in the next few days it could still be possible for a deal to be done at the summit in Brussels on October 17-18.

But is a breakthrough likely? Here are all of the answers to all of the key questions as Brexit enters its most volatile phase yet. 

What exactly is happening today? 

Mr Johnson and Mr Varadkar are meeting in the north west of England for last-ditch Brexit talks. 

Mr Johnson submitted his ‘final offer’ on Brexit – including his ideas of how to replace the backstop – last week but his plan has been given short shrift by the EU.

Brussels has said that as it stands the PM’s blueprint cannot provide the basis for a deal but both the EU and the UK are reluctant to move any further.

However, neither side will want to be blamed for a No Deal split which is at least a partial driver of today’s meeting between the PM and the Irish Taoiseach. 

Boris Johnson, pictured in Downing Street today, is due to meet with Leo Varadkar at lunchtime in the north west of England for emergency Brexit talks 

Mr Varadkar, pictured in Stockholm on October 3, has been downbeat on Mr Johnson's Brexit proposals. The Irish border remains the main stumbling block to a deal being done

Mr Varadkar, pictured in Stockholm on October 3, has been downbeat on Mr Johnson’s Brexit proposals. The Irish border remains the main stumbling block to a deal being done

The Irish border remains the main stumbling block to a deal and Downing Street is hoping that with both sides staring down the barrel of a disorderly divorce Mr Varadkar could soften his stance and persuade the EU to look again at the PM’s plan. 

The sensitivity of the talks has been illustrated by the fact that the location has not been released and no media access has been granted.

How likely is it that Mr Varadkar will budge? 

Not very. Dublin views Mr Johnson’s proposals on replacing the Irish backstop as deeply problematic and under-cooked. There are two main problems.  

Mr Johnson wants Northern Ireland to leave the EU’s customs union at the same time as the rest of the UK and he has urged the bloc to simplify and waive customs rules to keep cross-border trade as frictionless as possible.

The EU is unlikely to ever go for that idea and does not believe the UK’s plan of conducting checks far away from the border would work. 

Then there is the so-called ‘Stormont Lock’: Mr Johnson has proposed that the Northern Ireland Assembly should be given a say on what happens with the border in the future. 

Every four years the assembly would be asked to vote on the issue. But Dublin believes this is a flawed approach because it would effectively hand a veto to the DUP. 

Assuming today’s talks fail, what will happen next? 

The EU has said that it needs to know by the end of this week whether a deal is possible because it will need time to work on the details ahead of an EU summit on October 17-18. 

If there is no progress towards an agreement by close of play Friday it is likely that the EU will switch its attention to whether it will offer the UK a Brexit delay while Downing Street will probably focus on ramping up its No Deal efforts. 

One other thing will almost certainly happen: The blame game will properly begin.

What is Boris Johnson’s five-point plan to scrap the Irish backstop? 

Single market

Northern Ireland would leave the Customs’ Union with the rest of the UK but stay in the single market. 

This would constitute an ‘all island regulatory zone’ that covers trade of all goods. It would mean no checks between the two nations, because Northern Ireland would still have to follow EU rules.

Goods from Britain to Northern Ireland would effectively be managed by a border in the Irish Sea, with checks only in that direction, not the reverse. 

Stormont Lock 

The ‘all island regulatory zone’ will have to be approved by the people of Northern Ireland. This means the Northern Ireland Assembly has the right to veto the zone and could hold a referendum on the matter. 

Customs checks

Customs checks would have to be put in place on trade between Northern and the Republic of Ireland. Most checks would be made using technology, but some would still have to be physical.  

Cash for Northern Ireland 

A promise of a ‘new deal for Northern Ireland’ means ministers putting money aside for Belfast and Dublin to help aide economic development and ensure new measures work. 

Keeping to the Good Friday agreement 

Freedom of movement between two countries will remain. New deal would confirm commitment to collobaration between UK and Ireland. 

Then what? 

All eyes will turn to next week’s summit in Brussels. 

It is the last one scheduled before the October 31 Brexit deadline and had long been targeted as the moment at which a deal between the two sides would be rubber-stamped. 

Instead it now appears increasingly likely that the summit will be all about whether a Brexit delay is offered to the UK. 

The bloc is split three ways on the issue: Some nations favour offering a long delay to allow the UK to hold an election or referendum, some want a short but final delay to try to spark one last round of talks in the hopes of getting a deal, and some want no delay to be offered at all. 

When it comes to the crunch the EU is expected to offer an extension of some kind because failure to do so would see the bloc blamed for a bad break. 

Will Boris Johnson attend the summit? 

This is a very good question. If there is scope for a deal to be done then he will. 

But if no agreement is in the works and European leaders intend to debate a Brexit extension then it is thought the PM will boycott the summit. 

That would be a fairly unprecedented move for the leader of a member state but he will want nothing to do with talks relating to postponing the UK’s departure date given his ‘do or die’ pledge to deliver Brexit with or without a deal on Halloween. 

Boycotting the summit would also send a strong message to Brussels that the UK government does not want to be offered an extension. 

What about the anti-No Deal law called the Benn Act?

If there is no chance of an accord being struck at the summit the rebel legislation passed by Remain-backing MPs will take centre stage. 

It requires the PM to send a letter to the EU asking for Brexit to be pushed back to the end of January next year if no agreement has been struck by October 19. 

Mr Johnson has made clear that he will abide by the law but he has also been adamant that he will stick to his ‘do or die’ vow – two seemingly contradictory positions.  

It is thought that Mr Johnson could send the letter asking for a delay but that he would also make it plain to the EU in public and private that he does not want an extension. 

So what will happen on October 19?

It is possible and perhaps even likely that the EU will offer the UK an extension at next week’s summit. 

However, the Benn Act will still apply and the PM will still have to formally request a delay.

That means that Saturday October 19 is shaping up to be a massive moment in the Brexit process. 

The government said yesterday that it intended for the House of Commons to sit – the first Saturday sitting of Parliament since the Falklands War. 

Exactly what will happen on ‘Super Saturday’ will be determined by what happens over the next nine days but it is likely that if there is no accord Mr Johnson will ask MPs to vote on a motion in favour of a No Deal Brexit.

The Benn Act states that the UK can leave the EU without an agreement but only if a majority of MPs vote for it to do so.

If Mr Johnson won the vote he would have the green light for No Deal and would not have to write the extension letter.

But with a majority of MPs opposed to No Deal Mr Johnson would almost certainly lose such a vote. 

However, by holding it Mr Johnson would be able to show voters before a potential general election that he had tried to deliver Brexit but was thwarted by Parliament.  

If he lost the vote he would then have to send the letter to the EU – or potentially ask a civil servant to do it for him – but having made plain that he did not want to do it.  

What is the Irish backstop and why is it so divisive?

The so-called Irish border backstop is one of the most controversial parts of the existing Brexit deal. This is what it means: 

What is the backstop? 

The backstop was invented to meet promises to keep open the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland even if there is no comprehensive UK-EU trade deal.

The divorce deal says it will kick in automatically at the end of the Brexit transition period if that deal is not in place.

It effectively keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU and Northern Ireland in both the customs union and single market.

This means many EU laws will keep being imposed on the UK, restricting its ability to do its own trade deals. It also means regulatory checks on some goods crossing the Irish Sea. 

Why have Ireland and the EU demanded it? 

Because the UK is leaving the customs union and single market, the EU said it needed guarantees that people and goods circulating inside its border – in this case in Ireland – met its rules.

This is covered by the Brexit transition, which effectively maintains the status quo, and can in theory be done in the comprehensive EU-UK trade deal.

But the EU said there had to be a backstop to cover what happens in any gap between the transition and final deal.  

Why do critics hate it? 

Because Britain cannot decide when to leave the backstop. 

Getting out – even if there is a trade deal – can only happen if both sides agree and Brexiteers fear the EU will unreasonably demand the backstop continues so EU law continues to apply in Northern Ireland.  

Northern Ireland MPs also hate the regulatory border in the Irish Sea, insisting it unreasonably carves up the United Kingdom.   

Does the PM have any other options? 

He could refuse to send the letter but that would trigger an immediate court battle and almost certainly prompt a number of Cabinet ministers to quit. 

The PM would probably then lose in court and be compelled, kicking and screaming, by judges to send the letter.

He could also try to send two letters – one to comply with the law and one telling the EU not to grant a delay – but that would also likely result in a legal challenge, with the PM probably accused of trying to frustrate the purpose of the Benn Act. 

He could also opt to resign rather than write the letter but that would be the nuclear option. 

If Remain-MPs were so concerned that Mr Johnson was seemingly not going to comply with the Benn Act they could try to oust him with a vote of no confidence. 

That would then clear the way for a government of national unity to be formed with the single task of securing a delay and stopping No Deal. 

However, that would be an incredibly risky approach because there is no guarantee that Mr Johnson would resign as PM even if he lost a vote of no confidence. 

There is also no guarantee that any one MP would be able to unite a Commons majority behind them. 

If an extension is agreed, will there then be a general election?

Yes, almost certainly. Opposition leaders including Jeremy Corbyn have said that they will agree to an early election if and when a No Deal Brexit has been ruled out.

If the EU agree to a delay then MPs could vote to trigger a snap poll. 

There are two mechanisms for holding an early election. The first is for the PM to be defeated on a confidence motion and then two weeks pass without another confidence vote being won. 

The second – and more likely route – is to have two-thirds of the Commons vote for an early election. 

General elections must have a 25 day campaign period by law which means that if MPs vote for one in the aftermath of next week’s summit a potential polling day would be November 28.

Could there still be a second referendum? 

A general election looks more likely but there are plenty of MPs who want a second referendum instead. 

Former Tory Sir Oliver Letwin has warned that an election would not be a satisfactory way of settling the Brexit debate, as it would be clouded by a host of other political issues. 

Tony Blair, the former Labour PM, has said the same thing while other senior parliamentary figures are sympathetic to such concerns. 

The route to a referendum would probably involve defeating Mr Johnson in a confidence vote, and then replacing him with a ‘unity’ candidate as PM such as Labour’s Margaret Beckett or ex-chancellor Ken Clarke. They would then push through the legislation for a referendum. 

However, it looks like a very tricky proposition, with estimates that it could take up to six months to prepare a national ballot. There are also major questions about what the question would be, and whether No Deal would be on the ballot paper.

What happens if Boris Johnson wins a majority at the early election? 

Downing Street has suggested that the PM could fight an election on a No Deal platform on the grounds that the EU has shown it will not compromise. 

The pledge to make a ‘clean break’ would be designed to absorb the votes that have flowed from the Tories, and indeed Labour in its northern heartlands, to the Brexit Party. 

Victory could require a fundamental realignment of the country’s traditional political dividing lines, with the Conservatives needing seats like Bolsover – stronghold of hard-left veteran Dennis Skinner. 

With a Commons majority and a new mandate, Mr Johnson could then take the UK out of the EU without a deal – or have more leverage to extract concessions from Brussels.

However, pivoting to supporting No Deal as his preferred option would likely cause an exodus of moderate Tory MPs from the Conservative Party who would refuse to campaign for a bad break. 

Jeremy Corbyn, pictured in Northampton today, has said he will back an early general election when a No Deal Brexit has been ruled out

Jeremy Corbyn, pictured in Northampton today, has said he will back an early general election when a No Deal Brexit has been ruled out

What happens if Jeremy Corbyn wins a majority at the early election?

On current polling, Labour looks unlikely to secure a majority by itself. But the SNP has signalled it could prop him up, in return for permission to hold a new independence referendum. 

Labour has vowed to renegotiate the existing Brexit deal and go into an election promising to hold a second Brexit referendum between a new divorce package and Remain.

What if there is another hung Parliament?  

With the polls highly volatile, it looks quite possible that an election could deliver broadly similar numbers to the current Parliament. 

This would be possibly the most disconcerting outcome for the country – sending politicians straight back to the drawing board to try and final a way to break the deadlock.    


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