Boris Johnson is to attempt a last-ditch charm offensive on EU leaders to get a Brexit deal over the line, after delivering his proposals for a new withdrawal agreement to Brussels as early as the end of this week.
With EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier viewed in Downing Street as a stickler for rules who will be hard to shift from the deal struck with Theresa May, Mr Johnson is keen to speak with key European leaders who may be ready to show flexibility ahead of the crunch Brussels summit on 17 October.
Plans were made to fly the prime minister to the funeral of ex-president Jacques Chirac for talks in the margins with sympathetic leaders, but it was decided the opportunity did not justify breaking off his attendance at the Conservative conference in Manchester.
London believes a key to any deal will be securing the acceptance of Irish premier Leo Varadkar and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
News that negotiator David Frost has finalised a legal text of the UK proposals – said by a senior government source to be “game changing” – emerged as ministers attending cabinet admitted that they were not absolutely sure what the PM plans to do if his hopes of a deal fall flat.
With speculation that the plan is known only to a tiny circle around Mr Johnson and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings, housing minister Esther McVey said she did not “know what is necessarily going on in Boris’s head”, while even chancellor Sajid Javid when asked if he knew what the PM would do could say only that “I think I do”.
It came as Downing Street distanced itself from reports which claimed the proposals may include the construction of so-called customs clearance centres up to 10 miles either side of the Northern Ireland border. Goods would have to be declared and approved at the checkpoints, while their movement through the border zone would be monitored in real time, RTE reported.
Meanwhile, leading Remainer Dominic Grieve warned that Johnson could be dismissed within minutes by the Queen if he attempted to defy the law which requires him to extend Brexit talks if he cannot strike an acceptable deal by 19 October.
Ministers in Manchester seemed increasingly to be pinning their hopes on a Brexit deal which can win over not only some of the “Spartan” Eurosceptics who consigned Ms May’s agreement to defeat, but also Labour MPs in Leave-voting northern and midlands seats.
Despite the legal requirement to seek an extension to Article 50 Brexit negotiations until January if no agreement is reached, Mr Johnson continues to insist that he will take the UK out of the EU by 31 October, deal or no deal.
But Remainers believe that any such attempt would be doomed to failure.
They think the courts would strike down any use of the Civil Contingencies Act to declare a state of emergency, allowing ministers temporarily to suspend the relevant laws until after Halloween in order to prevent rioting or civil unrest.
And Mr Grieve said a simple refusal to sign the letter to Brussels would bring a swift end to Mr Johnson’s two-month-old premiership.
If the PM ignored a “mandamus” order from the Supreme Court compelling him to comply with what he terms the “surrender act”, the monarch would act to remove him, said the former attorney general.
“The Supreme Court – Her Majesty’s judges – telling the prime minister that as a matter of law he has to do something? He will be gone in five minutes. He will be dismissed,” said Mr Grieve.
The perilousness of Mr Johnson’s position was starkly illustrated in an Ipsos Mori poll for the London Evening Standard, which found that 81 per cent of voters were dissatisfied with his government’s performance, against 14 per cent who were satisfied.
The figures were worse than for any government since 1977, except for periods of the premierships of John Major and Theresa May.
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