On Monday, Tony Lloyd, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, said that Boris Johnson was pursuing a Brexit that was either “disastrous” or a “fantasyland wishlist.”

Lloyd was responding to a letter that the prime minister had written to the EU about reopening the Irish backstop issue and suggesting its replacement by some form of commitment that would guarantee the prevention of a hard border between the UK and Ireland. Johnson’s new position contradicts his previous support of Theresa May’s deal. As Tony Lloyd said: “Boris Johnson seems to have forgotten that he voted for Theresa May’s deal including the backstop. Whichever Brexit outcome he pursues, whether it’s a disastrous no-deal or this fantasyland wishlist, Boris Johnson clearly has no qualms about putting jobs, rights, prosperity or peace in Northern Ireland at risk.”

While Johnson believed that the EU will be receptive to his proposal, on Tuesday Donald Tusk rejected his request. As a response, a Downing Street spokesman said: “that unless the withdrawal agreement is reopened and the backstop abolished there is no prospect of a deal. It has already been rejected three times by MPs and is simply unviable as a solution, as the PM’s letter makes clear.”

Johnson has stated on more than one occasions that he is willing to crash out of the EU without a deal on 31 October, despite warnings that the UK will face food and medicine shortages.

The letter

Johnson’s letter is an attempt at negotiating with the EU which appears as a regressive move, bringing up again the controversy around a hard border with Ireland that the EU and many in the UK and Ireland are clearly against. Before meeting European leaders, Johnson addressed the four-page letter to the President of the European Commission Donald Tusk saying that the backstop is “anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK.” He added that there could be different customs arrangements at the Irish border within the two-year transitional period after Brexit. However, having some general commitments in place that would prevent a hard border until the proposed system was agreed, was also a solution, Johnson noted.

But the EU does not wish to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and the backstop. According to Guardian sources: “There was a two and a half year negotiating process in which the EU compromised, including on the question of the backstop. The withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation and the backstop is not open for change. A legally operable backstop to avoid a hard border remains central to the withdrawal agreement for the EU27.”

Johnson said: “I propose that the backstop should be replaced with a commitment to put in place such arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship. I also recognise that there will need to be a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period. We are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitments might help, consistent of course with the principles set out in this letter.”

In the letter, he claims that the backstop is anti-democratic because it could force “the UK potentially indefinitely into an international treaty which will bind us into a customs union and which applies large areas of single market legislation in Northern Ireland”.

But an EU source described the letter as “a total moving of the goalposts on an issue of great importance and sensitivity that affects the lives of people on the island of Ireland.”

What happens next?

Johnson has also been accused by Tory MPs who have written a letter saying that the prime minister is preparing for a no-deal Brexit as his demand for the abolition of the backstop is simply impossible.

According to No 10, the prime minister has been clear: “there cannot be any actual negotiations unless the backstop goes; that’s the message he has delivered to leaders in his phone conversations and he will do that face to face. We have been clear that what the EU needs to understand is unless the withdrawal agreement can be reopened and the backstop abolished, there isn’t any prospect of a deal.”

Johnson will be meeting Merkel in Germany on Wednesday and on Thursday Macron, but the eyes of EU leaders will be on the UK, Tory MPs and opposition leaders as they attempt to block a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.

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