What is Boris Johnson up to? Or… why a soft Brexit is back on the cards

There’s something odd about the Tory leadership election, and I think it points to where Boris Johnson is going once he wins (which he will). I’ve hesitated over sharing this, because I think it might be a ‘too optimistic’ take. But I think it’s pretty obvious from the events.

There are a couple of things I take for granted here. The first is that the Tories understand how damaging an issue Brexit is for them electorally, and the second is that a no-deal Brexit is going to be very difficult to manage.

The focus on ‘do or die’ leaving without a deal is clearly a distraction. I don’t think any Tory could get away with the damage to their core vote and broader coalition a no deal exit would mean. That leaves us with the question of what the macho competition to be more committed to no deal Brexit is a distraction from….

And I think it’s a distraction from the obvious route open to a Tory leader who wants to leave the EU with a deal on the October timescale. Which is to drop the red lines that the May deal was negotiated on. Not necessarily all of them, but those that necessitate the Northern Ireland backstop.

Theresa May’s reaction to losing a load of seats to pro-remain parties in the local elections in May was to claim that this meant she needed to get on with Brexit. Which sounds daft, but speaks to the reality that the Tory vote can’t be reunited at the polls while Brexit is a live issue. The Tories (and Labour too) need to kill Brexit as an issue before the next General Election.

Which is why dropping the red lines is something that I think comes back into play. A renegotiation without all the red lines is something I think the EU would entertain, it would solve the immediate problems, allow a Brexit on the October timescale, and change the debate from one of fact to one of detail.

At the moment Tories have to admit that Brexit hasn’t been delivered. That’s a boon to the Brexit party and others who want to split the Tory vote. An argument about what kind of Brexit people wanted and what kind of Brexit was possible is much more difficult for Farage and friends to argue about.

It allows a way back to a soft Brexit, offers him the chance to present himself as a good negotiator and opens the way to Boris Johnson’s premiership being about something other than Brexit. It won’t keep the hardcore Brexiters happy, but it will probably attract support from the DUP and may gain some Labour support (or abstention).

And Johnson is the best person to deliver this. He can distract the hard right, pro-Brexit elements of the Tory vote – he’s exactly the sort of chap they want to be Prime Minister. In the same way as only a right-wing Republican like Richard Nixon could normalise relations with the People’s Republic of China, so only a Brexit ‘true-believer’ can sell hard Brexit out.

I still think it runs the risk of the Tories being supplanted as the major right of centre party by a hard-right party – but I think it looks like the most likely path out of the current quagmire.


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