It took less than four minutes for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal to die

The prime minister spend all day and night, trying to persuade the DUP to back him. Now he pretends their backing does not matter

Boris Johnson confirms Brexit deal is 'very good deal'

On 6 May 1954, a young medical doctor called Roger Bannister ran four full laps of the Iffley Road track in Oxford in less time than it took for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal to die.

It is hard to say which is the greater achievement. The four-minute mile or the four-minute failure. Both, in their way, pushed back the boundary of the possible. The world knew Bannister was good, but not that good. The world knows Boris Johnson is hopeless, but this bad?

First thing Thursday morning, the deal was off. The Democratic Unionist Party had refused to sign up to it. There was no way it was getting through the House of Commons. That’s it. The end.

Then, at 10.35am, everything changed. “We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control,” Boris Johnson announced, via his own Twitter account, the first of a string of six triumphant tweets whose triumph would last for around 240 seconds.

At 10.39am the DUP announced themselves that, no, they hadn’t changed their minds, their statement “still stands”. They would not be voting for the deal, and therefore the chances of it passing the House of Commons are close to zero.

It is hard to know whether Johnson enjoyed his four short minutes in which, in the eyes of the world, it was possible he was not the worst British prime minister in history. The answer is probably not.

Because from the beginning, to the end and right the way through the middle of his full 240 seconds of artificial triumph, he knew the truth, even if the rest of us did not. That his deal was dead before it began. That in fact, the duration of his success, like his parliamentary majority, can only be measured in negative numbers.

In Brussels and in Westminster, the gathered masses went through the motions anyway. A press conference was held, a statement issued, documents published.

The news was announced in the House of Commons by Jacob Rees-Mogg, to the exultant waggling of order papers up on the backbenches by the door where the hard Brexit contingent like to sit.

It was from those seats, by the way, that Robin Cook rose in 2003, to announce his resignation from the cabinet over the Iraq War. It is quite rightly remembered as one of the great speeches in the long history of that hallowed room, from which one especially sharp bit of reasoning stands out from the rest.

“I applaud the heroic efforts that the prime minister has made in trying to secure a second resolution,” he said then.

“But the very intensity of those attempts underlines how important it was to succeed.

“Now that those attempts have failed, we cannot pretend that getting a second resolution was of no importance.”

And so it is again. If having the DUP onside were not entirely crucial, Boris Johnson would not have spent most of yesterday and all of last night trying to persuade them. He has failed. We cannot pretend it was of no importance.

An hour later, Johnson appeared in Brussels, to stand behind a lectern with Jean-Claude Juncker and make a few comments.

“I hope the House of Commons can get this done, without delay,” he said, and the usual smirk broke out.

He can’t help himself. He spent five years sitting in Brussels sitting in the press seats at press conferences. Now he is on the other side of the lectern, he knows well enough when words are exiting his lips that don’t deserve to be treated with any credibility. It’s almost honourable that he doesn’t give them any credibility himself.

For the rest of the day, Brussels, Westminster and its swirling universe danced its usual dance.

If the House of Commons rejects the deal, what next? Would the EU allow an extension?

“We have a deal. There is no need for a prolongation,” Jean-Claude Juncker said, many times. It’s not a “no”, and he knows it.

Will enough Labour MPs be prepared to take the cover Juncker has given them, to take up the opportunity to kid themselves and others into saying out loud that it’s this deal or no deal, and do Boris Johnson’s bidding for him and, in his own wearisome phrase, “Get Brexit done”?

It’s dimly possible, but unlikely. What happens then? An extension? A general election? A second referendum? Something like that, in some order or other. But all of these things are almost as hard for a hung parliament to make happen as a Brexit deal.

Juncker, Varadkar, Tusk and Michel Barnier appeared later. All of them spoke with an air of finality – that Brexit is indeed done. “Brexit has been a negative experience, a lose-lose process,” Barnier said.

Perhaps they really have had enough. Perhaps this really is it. But it seems unlikely.

When Johnson finally appeared, at 7pm Brussels time, he spoke with almost a weary hope. “This process has been painful, at times,” he said. Which it has, the pain caused by him.

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There appears to be a hope that the country, via its MPs, can just be browbeaten into accepting the dismal future Johnson never actually thought it would be stupid enough to vote for.

The Brexit “deal” he has done amounts to no more than a return to the offer rejected by Theresa May in 2018, to essentially keep Northern Ireland within the EU’s economic structures after the rest of the UK leaves, with the earliest practical chance for it to change its mind coming in 2028.

The terms of Johnson’s deal are essentially the same as the ones he took it upon himself, as a backbench MP, to fly to the DUP’s conference in Belfast in 2018 and tell them, “no British prime minister could ever sign up to”.

A year later, he asked them to agree to terms he had told them, a year previously, he could never sign up to himself. Unsurprisingly, it’s unsustainable.

“What I feel today is frankly speaking, sadness,” said Donald Tusk, “because in my heart I will always be a Remainer. And I hope that if our British friends decide to return one day, our door will always be open.”

If this is indeed the end, certain realities will become clear, and fast.

Three million European nationals live in the UK. They did not have the right to vote in the referendum.

It is a statement of fact that, whatever “the will of the people”, as expressed one day in June 2016, if you walk down Britain’s streets, use its public transport, or its schools, or its hospitals, you are in a country that, on balance, does not want Brexit to happen.

It is also a demographic reality that as age moves through the UK population, nostalgia for a world before 1975 diminishes.

​There is also no credible economic analysis, anywhere, to show that Brexit will not make Britain poorer. Its economy will be smaller, its public transport, its schools, its hospitals will all be worse. These are facts that no amount of tedious bluster from Boris Johnson can counter.

A country becoming poorer in the service of a goal in which it does not believe is not sustainable. Not in the long term, perhaps not even in the medium or short term.

The UK is still not out of that door. Should it ever be so, the chance of it remaining outside for the “generations” that are often spoken of seem tremendously unlikely.

There is, of course, a certain amount of shame that comes with having to admit you were taken in by Boris Johnson. But it is also the first step to recovering one’s dignity. He knows better than anyone that everybody does it in the end.

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