Conservative supporters received an email message from Boris Johnson on Monday, with the subject line: “I will not back down” – echoing the promise of his chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, that “we won’t blink”.
Even before the revelation that the government plans to repudiate aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol through domestic legislation – leaked to the Financial Times – the background music to this week’s Brexit negotiations was bombastic.
Team Johnson has always believed one of the mistakes Theresa May made in the drawn-out saga of Brexit negotiations was that despite repeatedly insisting, “No deal is better than a bad deal”, she never convinced the EU27 that she was willing to walk away, because, ultimately, she wasn’t.
Johnson has always set out to show that he is. Last year, that meant proroguing parliament and purging his party of moderates. Ultimately, of course, he went on to negotiate a tweaked withdrawal agreement, that involved significant concessions over the status of Northern Ireland.
And it is the practicalities of implementing the Northern Ireland protocol with which Johnson replaced May’s “backstop” that now appear to be giving at least some in government pause.
“There’s a sense that the details of the protocol are mind-boggling – there are many competing interpretations,” said one source with knowledge of the government’s Brexit preparations.
As analysts have pointed out from the beginning, the protocol certainly doesn’t seem to accord with Johnson’s repeated assertions that there would be “no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind” on goods crossing the Irish Sea. And there is a nagging fear among Tory backbenchers that the protocol effectively smuggles in Brussels oversight of much of the UK’s state aid regime.
So part of what the government appears to be doing in the internal markets bill is legislating for its own preferred reading of the deal.
Steve Baker, one of the most vociferous pro-Brexit critics of May’s deal, has previously said he was promised by Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove that the Brexiters could vote for the withdrawal agreement with the confidence the government could change it – a promise that it may yet seek to deliver .
This week’s developments are unlikely to be anything to do with the influence of Baker and others in the pro-Brexit group he previously chaired, the European Research Group, because relations are poor, and Baker himself called for Cummings to resign over his trip to Durham in May.
And No 10 was keen to insist on Monday that ministers are not, in effect, planning to use domestic legislation to tear up the withdrawal agreement; merely ensuring that the UK is prepared for the situation in which no free trade agreement is reached.
But the move is likely to be read in Brussels (and among Johnson’s own MPs) as part of the broader context – which is a government ready to play hardball.
There are at least some good reasons to think this is partly theatre. One is domestic politics: Johnson is already irked at Keir Starmer’s framing of his government as “incompetent”. Failing to secure a trade deal would give the Labour leader another front on which the prime minister’s promises could be compared unfavourably to reality.
Moreover, the added disruption to trade from a no-deal outcome would come at an extremely challenging time, when the economy remains severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
But it’s also true that there is something at stake here that Johnson and his team believe is important. The prime minister and his gang of Vote Leave veterans have always placed heavy weight on the necessity for “divergence” – not least on state aid, one of the knotty issues the EU has insisted on resolving up front.
Gove, Johnson and Gisela Stuart – since ennobled – lined up at an election campaign event to tell ex-Labour voters that the ability to swiftly bail out struggling firms would be one of the advantages of leaving the EU.
Yet Brussels-watchers say there is some flexibility in the EU’s stance on state aid, which is there to be exploited, if only the UK would publish its own proposals.
So there are hefty issues at stake in the negotiations, which matter to Johnson, Cummings and their idea of what Brexit means. But it is too early to declare the prospects of an agreement dead. As last year’s Brexit drama showed, like his great admirer across the Atlantic, Johnson also likes to show that he understands the art of the deal.