This morning when Angela Merkel told Boris Johnson his Brexit offer did not provide the requisite confidence that the border on the island of Ireland would be kept open while preserving the integrity of the EU’s single market, it looked as though any Brexit deal was dead – and that the Prime Minister would therefore now focus all his efforts on achieving a no-deal Brexit, while MPs would focus all theirs on forcing him to ask for a Brexit delay.
Tonight the president of the European Parliament, David Maria Sassoli, met Johnson and reinforced Merkel’s message that the British offer falls well short.
So a Brexit deal is all over bar the shouting? Not quite, but almost.
Technical talks between the Article 50 Taskforce and the UK’s negotiator rumble on.
And the Irish PM Leo Varadkar tried to be more emollient in his chat with Johnson this afternoon. He said that the backstop and membership of the customs union, so hated by Northern Ireland’s DUP – Johnson’s unionist allies – would only be temporary, seemingly contradicting what Merkel said (though my German sources insist Johnson over-reacted to Merkel simply saying that the original backstop, which would potentially have kept the UK or NI in the customs union forever, is the sole idea that so far solves the so-called Ireland problem).
All of which suggests that towards the end of this week the EU will moot a possible deal-saving compromise, namely keeping Northern Ireland in the backstop for a specified and limited number of years.
A Brexit agreement snatched from the jaws of mutual intergovernmental abuse? Very doubtful.
‘We will say no [to a time-limited backstop]’ said a Downing Street official.
Which may prompt a bit of argy bargy in cabinet. However only four ministers – Morgan, Smith, Buckland and Hancock – might put their jobs on the line to prevent rejection of a temporary NI-only backstop in preference to no deal.
So within a few days we will be back where we were, namely in the titanic struggle between MPs and PM, as they try to stymie his no-deal Brexit on 31 October.
The really important battle will come on 19 October, when I am told Johnson will endeavour to sow maximum confusion at home and in the EU, by allowing a letter to be sent to EU leaders requesting a Brexit delay – signed either by him or a proxy – and then sending a second letter in effect saying he is a prisoner of MPs and he does not personally want a Brexit postponement.
Downing Street tells me yesterday’s Scottish court judgement does not prevent Johnson putting EU leaders in this hideous position of having to decide whether the British PM does or does not speak for the UK.
The stakes could hardly be higher for the UK and EU. And if you thought that Johnson and his chief aide Dominic Cummings are set at last to adopt a more consensual approach, they beg to differ.
Here is how a Downing Street official characterises their position:
‘It ought to be obvious that if EU countries are seen to work with parliament and the courts to keep us in [the EU] when most want this resolved on 31/10, then it will cause significant damage to relations and inevitably will affect cooperation on all levels.
‘This isn’t a crude threat of sabotage. It is a statement of fact.
‘But the European debate is conducted in a parallel world: Westminster does not understand the country, and Brussels does not understand Westminster. We continue to try to strip away illusions but it is an uphill struggle… But I think warning people is the only responsible course of action’.
You may disagree with Johnson’s and Cummings’s assumptions and premises, in particular that they are merely the servants of a British populous whose only wish is any kind of Brexit in 23 days.
But there is no credible scenario where they escape oblivion if they give any hint that they would collaborate in a Brexit delay.
If they willingly sacrifice 31 October they will be in the dustbin of history. Cummings and Johnson will not be budged either from Brexit on that due date, or – if the postponement is forced on them – a general election to secure their no-deal Brexit as soon as humanly possible thereafter.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV news blog.