British PM Boris Johnson's government fears Brexit deal slipping away

A British government Brexit information campaign poster at a bus stop in central London on Oct 15, 2019.
A British government Brexit information campaign poster at a bus stop in central London on Oct 15, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government is pessimistic about the chances of securing a Brexit deal after his Northern Irish allies raised objections to the plans that have been drawn up in talks in Brussels, according to a British official.

The Democratic Unionist Party is resisting the proposed divorce agreement and British officials now think the chances of getting an agreement are low, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The pound, which rallied on Tuesday (Oct 15) on hopes of an imminent deal, slumped after the official revealed that the Democratic Unionist Party had raised objections to the proposals. The FTSE 250 index dropped after the news. Gilts extended gain

DUP leader Arlene Foster spoke to Johnson on Tuesday, and afterwards said: “Gaps remain and further work is required.”

According to EU officials, Britain has made several big concessions in recent days to secure a deal, including on the critical issue of the Irish border. Talks went on late Tuesday (Oct 15) night and there appeared to be momentum toward a deal. But EU officials say Johnson won’t give the green light to an accord unless he is sure the DUP will back it. The  British government also held discussions with hardline Brexit-backers and officials from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party.

If a deal is not sealed and approved by the British Parliament by Saturday, then Britain will once again be pitched into a constitutional crisis that could result in a chaotic no-deal exit. Johnson will be told to seek an extension to EU membership, but he has sworn not to delay Brexit further and a legal battle will probably follow. 

Brexit purist Steve Baker said late Tuesday he was optimistic it was possible to reach a “tolerable deal” he could vote for Johnson needs a deal approved this Saturday or he will be told to seek an extension; that will likely prompt a legal battle with the risk of a no-deal exit

The negotiators are meeting again on Wednesday, but without the DUP's support, Johnson will face a struggle to get any agreement approved in a vote in the UK Parliament.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis, a committed Brexit-backer, said that securing the support of the Democratic Unionist Party will be key to getting Conservative MPs to vote for any deal Johnson secures from Brussels. 

 
 
 

“Quite a lot of Tory MPs will take their line from the DUP,” Davis told BBC radio Wednesday. That’s despite the suggestion on Twitter of Tory MP Steve Baker late Tuesday that his group of pro-Brexit Tory MPs are “optimistic” they’ll be able to vote for a deal following a meeting with Johnson’s team. 

If Johnson can get a legal text approved in Brussels, he will then need to persuade Britain’s Parliament to vote for it, and for that he wants the DUP on side. 

But the DUP is a “unionist” party, which means its members prize maintaining the economic and political unity of Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK above all else. And there are suggestions the deal Johnson is putting together will effectively split Northern Ireland from mainland Britain, with a new customs “border” for checking goods traveling between the two. That would be difficult for the DUP to swallow. 

Both the UK and the EU want to avoid the need for customs checks on goods crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. In the past the DUP and the UK government have refused to contemplate a solution that involves a customs border between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.