Boris Johnson wants to keep his Brexit plan private. But the Prime Minister isn’t having much luck these days.
On Monday night, Irish broadcaster RTE reported what it claimed were details of part of Johnson’s plan to break the Brexit deadlock.
According to RTE, the UK’s plan to avoid post-Brexit infrastructure on the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland involve “customs clearance centers” several miles from the border – and on both sides of it.
That, it hopes, will remove the need for something called the Irish border backstop from any final Brexit deal. The backstop is an emergency measure which would keep the two Irish nations in regulatory alignment, removing the need for any border or “clearance centers” at all. It’s deeply unpopular with many in Johnson’s Conservative party and is one of the main reasons his predecessor, Theresa May, failed to get her Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament.
Ireland quickly dismissed the idea as a “non starter”. And Johnson himself told the BBC on Tuesday, “that’s not what we’re proposing at all… you’ll forgive me, I would like to veil our proposals in decent obscurity until we’ve been able to share them properly with our friends”.
So why is this story a big deal?
Keeping the government’s formal proposals from Brussels for the time being might be wise. The crunch EU summit, at which any Brexit deal will be struck, is now under three weeks away.
The EU is a notoriously tough institution to negotiate with and has a history of tearing apart any Brexit proposal from the moment it leaves the door.
Johnson has repeatedly said that the only way to make the EU budge on ditching the backstop is to show that he is both deadly serious about getting a deal but also prepared to leave without one.
Some of the ideas reported by RTE chime with speculation about the UK government’s plans in recent weeks. And anyone who has followed Brexit for the last three years will tell you, the EU and Ireland will refuse to sign a deal that involves infrastructure between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
So, even though the Prime Minister has distanced himself from the proposals, these headlines will have done little to reassure Brussels that Johnson and his government are serious about getting a deal.
It’s also a bad look for Johnson back home. He is currently out of London and at his Conservative party’s annual conference in Manchester, in the north of England. Johnson will close the conference with a keynote speech on Wednesday afternoon.
It’s widely thought that he wanted to trail his final Brexit plan during this speech before formally submitting something to Brussels in the subsequent days.
The problem with the leak of any Brexit plan now is that it increases the risk of Johnson being greeted by a hostile audience at his conference on Wednesday. Despite being the Brexit hero of 2016, Conservative hard-Brexiteers are deeply worried that Johnson, if he succeeds in getting rid of the backstop, will simply try and push through the rest May’s Brexit deal.
For Brexiteers, this would be a huge sellout. There are people sitting in Johnson’s cabinet who resigned from Theresa May’s government to vote against her Brexit deal. And Johnson himself resigned as May’s Foreign Secretary over her general approach to Brexit.
Up here in Manchester, the mood among party members is generally positive. Johnson has always been a popular Conservative MP and he seems to have broad support for his hard Brexit language.
That could turn sour if he’s seen to make concessions to Brussels. Which would all be somewhat ironic, for a man who has spent the past few days accusing his opponents of surrendering.