Why I probably won't be getting Brexit for my birthday

(FILES) In this file photo taken on August 28, 2019, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seen speaking to the press ahead of a meeting at The Elysee Palace in Paris, with French President Emmanuel Macron. - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson thinks his talks with the EU will fail and that he will then have to

The October 31 deadline has become totemic thanks to Remainer obstruction

Please forgive the apparent self-indulgence of what follows. I hope its point may have wider application.

On Monday night, the think-tank Policy Exchange kindly hosted the launch of the final volume of my biography of Margaret Thatcher in the Banqueting House, Whitehall. Also very kindly – especially given the extraordinary days he is living through – Boris Johnson attended and spoke.

I was touched. When he became Prime Minister, I told him that he should feel free to say to me, as Prince Hal says to Falstaff once he becomes King, “I know thee not, old man”. The boisterous days of shared journalistic freedom must give way to the gravity of affairs of state. The friend and colleague “Boris” has to be a different being from the man I now deliberately address as “Prime Minister”.

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The “Boris” bit has not completely disappeared, however. Just before he mounted the podium, I told him I am a Hallowe’en baby, so the date of my birthday coincides with that of Brexit. Boris stole this private remark and ended his witty speech by exhorting the crowd to deliver Brexit as my birthday present.

This made me think about what dates mean. In a factual sense, it makes little difference exactly when we leave the European Union. If someone promises me a birthday present, and then it doesn’t appear for a few weeks after my birthday, I do not much mind: I trust the donor’s good will. There is nothing sacred about the day itself. It is obviously more celebratory to be on time, but my present usually won’t be less worth having if it arrives late.

In the case of Brexit, however, no one trusts the good will of anyone else. It has been so delayed and obstructed by Remainers that the date has become totemic.

It was actually the EU that set 31 October as its extended deadline for departure. It did not do so to help Britain. In that sense, Mr Johnson has a perfect right to behave like his Remainer opponents and try to muck about with the date if it suits him. But because Theresa May asked for an extension after failing to convince others of the merits of her deal and was too frightened to contemplate no deal, Mr Johnson, campaigning for leader, had to show he was different. We would be out, he felt compelled to say, by 31 October, deal or no deal.

This promise helped him win the contest and concentrate minds, but it was a hostage to fortune. His opponents realised they could now agree on at least one thing – to embarrass him. Hence the Bercow coup d’etat to pass the Benn Act, later abetted by the Supreme Court. Hence the Act’s provision forcing the Prime Minister to ask for another extension by a specific date, in order to mess up the departure date on which he had publicly set his heart. It makes him look weak if he signs and unlawful if he refuses.

So now we are heading for a decision, artificial in its timing but real in its conflicts. Yesterday, both sides seemed ready to enter “the tunnel” – that dark place of private negotiation which in the past has rarely had any light at the end of it for Britain.

It remains impossible to be confident about who scared whom into this. There is a case for saying that Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s superbly frightening adviser, succeeded in scaring the EU. Early this week, The Spectator’s James Forsyth received a letter about Downing Street’s position. It was formally anonymous but, in style and thought, showed that it was written either by Cummings or by a consummate parodist. In it, Anon/Cummings disclosed that things had been moving towards a deal over the Irish backstop, but then Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, had chucked his shillelagh into the works.

Believing that the Benn Act had successfully undermined the British Government’s plan, Mr Varadkar had – in the Anon/Cummings version – “gone very cold” on Britain’s Irish offer, believing he could screw more out of us later. The British Government’s response would be that “If this deal dies in the next few days, then it won’t be revived”. The Tories were ready to fight an election on the basis of “No more delays, get Brexit done immediately”, and would win. Anon/Cummings warned that Mr Varadkar, like all EU operators, did not understand the strength of Brexit feeling because their British contacts are all Remainers.

On Thursday, Mr Varadkar suddenly acted as if he had heeded that warning. After meeting Boris Johnson in Cheshire, he declared he had now discerned “a pathway towards an agreement”. The next day, into the “tunnel” they went. Perhaps the EU had been spooked by Cummings, and had persuaded Mr Varadkar to be more pliable to avoid the no deal which would damage his country far more than any other participant. Perhaps he realised just in time that he had overreached.

It is equally possible, however, that Britain, alarmed by its Irish offer stalling, put up a smokescreen of Cummings toughness to hide the fact that it is now on the path of concession. When it emerges, blinking, from the tunnel, Eurosceptics such as those in the European Research Group (ERG) may find it is almost too late for them to object to its contents. They will come under enormous pressure to help Mr Johnson over the line.

A third possibility is that the EU simply wishes to present itself in a good light. Donald Tusk said yesterday that “a no-deal Brexit will never be the choice of the EU”. What he really means is that a no-deal Brexit will be entirely the fault of the British. So long as Britain can be blamed, the EU has no overwhelming need to negotiate in good faith.

Seen from a Brexit point of view, it is perhaps ominous that the entire discussion now centres on the Irish aspect. This means that the ERG cannot intervene much. If the DUP, with whom they are closely allied, accepts some concession to the EU, mainland British Tory politicians cannot really gainsay them. Yesterday, there was no DUP caterwauling, because they feel included by Mr Johnson (as they were not by Mrs May). They may even think Northern Ireland is being offered a special status which keeps it fully in the United Kingdom, plus added EU advantages.

As well as outflanking the ERG, this concentration on Ireland means that other objectionable aspects of the deal lie neglected by the British Government – the vast sum of money we have to pay up-front, our imprisonment (without voting rights) in the transition period, our subjection, seemingly in perpetuity, to the International Arbitration Panel and therefore to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The old problem reappears: large numbers of MPs don’t care what is actually in any deal so long as we get one, a truly weird doctrine on which to base our future position in the world.

The Government has been developing, in secret, ways of getting round the Benn Act without breaking the law, leaving on 31 October if no deal is made. If these work, everything looks different. If they don’t, and a deal is agreed in principle, I doubt whether Boris will be able to give me my birthday present on time. Will this be because he has sensibly bought a bit more time to settle details or because he has, in essence, failed? It is still too early to judge.

  • Read Charles Moore's latest column on every Friday night from 9.30pm