Brexit deal agreed as EU leaders endorse Boris Johnson's plan

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8:15 a.m. ET, October 17, 2019

BREAKING: The DUP says "No"

There we have it. The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, whose 10 MPs nominally prop up Boris Johnson's government in the UK Parliament, have definitively rejected his deal, saying they won't vote for it on Saturday.

"We have been consistent that we will only ever consider supporting arrangements that are in Northern Ireland's long-term economic and constitutional interests and protect the integrity of the Union. These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic well-being of Northern Ireland and they undermine the integrity of the Union."

That throws a serious spanner in the works for Johnson, whose pathway to a majority in Parliament just narrowed significantly.

And there's more bad news in the statement: The DUP note, ominously, that the process of getting the UK out of the European Union involves more than just one vote. There's a whole slew of enabling legislation that must be passed too. And it doesn't look like Johnson can count on the DUP's support for that, either.

"Saturday’s vote in Parliament on the proposals will only be the start of a long process to get any Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the House of Commons.”

7:49 a.m. ET, October 17, 2019

The DUP rolled a grenade into Brexit talks. Does it have more booby traps planned?

DUP leader, Arlene Foster.
DUP leader, Arlene Foster.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), rolled a carefully timed grenade into Brexit talks in Brussles Thursday.

Just hours before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was due to arrive at a make-or-break EU summit, the party announced: “we could not support what is being suggested on customs and consent issues and there is a lack of clarity on VAT."

Their intervention is not so much a fragmentation killer device, more of a stunning flash bang -- and not unexpected -- almost derailing frantic last minute talks.

Even at this late stage it’s not clear if the DUP have more booby traps planned for the Brexit talks.

No political party has more at stake in Brexit negotiations than the DUP, and no issue more sensitive than Northern Ireland's new frontier with the EU.

When the DUP say VAT is an issue, the deal-killing detail for them is Northern Ireland's place in the UK -- and how it will be impacted by a new system of collecting taxes.

In short, whether Northern Ireland is being treated differently to the rest of the UK.

The DUP now faces the toughest choice in their history: whether to compromise on Northern Ireland’s connection to the UK.

For the DUP, Brexit talks have always pivoted on customs and consensus. Or as DUP leader Arlene Foster frames it: “respect of [the] constitutional and economic place of Northern Ireland in UK”.

In real terms that appears to be coming down to what is euphemistically termed a border down the Irish sea separating Northern Ireland and Great Britain -- something the DUP has rejected before.

For decades the DUP has been a bastion for the province’s protestant Unionists resistant to a rising tide of Irish nationalism. Past leaders grew infamous with chants of “no surrender”-- determined to keep Northern Ireland an inseparable part of the United Kingdom.

Today’s DUP leaders have got more face time in the past few days with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson than most members of his cabinet as he seeks to sooth their jangled nerves.

For Johnson, Brexit is a political calculation. Polls in his party a few months ago revealed they’d dump the DUP if that’s what it took to get Brexit done. Even so the herculean task of getting Brexit through Parliament becomes nigh impossible without them.

The EU demands, and Johnson agrees, Northern Ireland must maintain an open border with the Republic of Ireland, as written in the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that ended decades of sectarian bloodshed.

The DUP sense an existential threat, not just for the party, but on the value they hold dearest: an unbreakable bond with mainland Britain.

Many of their voters are farmers and small businessmen whose livelihoods depend on an open border with Ireland. Its counter-intuitive to the party’s raison d’etre yet feeds in to fears of a slow slide towards a United Ireland

Their voters know no amount of history will put food on their table. Pragmatism beckons, and that for the DUP has always been one of their toughest challenges.

7:22 a.m. ET, October 17, 2019

The Scottish National Party says the Brexit deal is "unfair"

The Scottish National Party is the second-biggest opposition party in the House of Commons – and we've just got their reaction.

The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said that while her party supported "peace and stability on the island of Ireland," it would not vote for Johnson's deal because it did not allow Scots any say over whether it should be implemented.

Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain in the European Union, in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

“For Scotland, this deal would take us out of EU, single market and customs union - all against our will. It would leave us as only part of UK being taken out without consent and with no say on future relationship," Sturgeon tweeted, adding that her party "will not vote for that."
“MPs should not fall for a deal/no deal framing. No Brexit/revoke is always an alternative to no deal," she said.

Background: Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

7:10 a.m. ET, October 17, 2019

Johnson: "Anti-democratic backstop has been abolished"

The Irish backstop -- a key sticking point in former British prime minister Theresa May's thrice-defeated withdrawal plan -- is out.

The backstop was an insurance policy designed to avoid a so-called "hard border" between Ireland and Northern Ireland if no other solution was found by the end of the transition period in 2022. It envisaged that the whole of the UK would remain tied to the EU's customs union until a trade deal was concluded between the two sides.

The problem for Brexiteers – those who favored a decisive break with the European Union – was that trade negotiations could take years, and the EU in effect would retain a veto over British trade policy.

Now that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK's customs territory, it means the "anti-democratic backstop has been abolished," Johnson tweeted shortly after his Brexit plan was ratified by the EU.

What this means

The removal of the backstop means that the hardline Brexiteers in Johnson's Conservative Party are more likely to support it in Parliament. Downing Street would also have hoped that it would bring the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland on side. He may have succeeded in the former, but failed (so far) in the latter.

7:02 a.m. ET, October 17, 2019

Brexit really was a walk in the park

The EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has acknowledged that the one-on-one meeting between Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar two weeks ago unlocked the pathway to today's deal. Paying tribute to Varadkar, Barnier said:

"He decided to meet in Liverpool a few days ago. and it was from that meeting that we knew we could make headway."

That meeting was held at Thornton Manor, a wedding venue near Liverpool in northwest England. Johnson and Varadkar were famously photographed strolling together in the grounds of the manor.

Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar take a walk in the woods at Thornton Manor, northwest England.
Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar take a walk in the woods at Thornton Manor, northwest England. Noel Mullen/Irish Government Press Office via Getty Images

6:56 a.m. ET, October 17, 2019

Barnier: Irish border solution rests on four main elements

The EU's Chief Brexit Negotiator, Michel Barnier, gave reporters a rundown of the four main elements of how the Northern Ireland-Ireland protocol will work:

  1. Northern Ireland will remain aligned to a limited set of EU rules, including goods.
  2. It will also remain in the UK's customs territory but will be an "entry point" into the EU's single market;
  3. On sales tax, or VAT, the plan will maintain the integrity of the single market.
  4. Northern Ireland will be able to decide whether to continue applying union rules every four years.
6:32 a.m. ET, October 17, 2019

UK opposition parties reject Johnson's deal

Two of the main opposition parties in the UK have rejected the Brexit deal announced today, meaning that the British Prime Minister will face an extremely tough job getting the deal through the UK Parliament.

Jeremy Corbyn MP, leader of the Labour Party, the biggest opposition group in the House of Commons, was unequivocal. He said:
"The Prime Minister has negotiated an even worse deal than Theresa May’s, which was overwhelmingly rejected."
"These proposals risk triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections: putting food safety at risk, cutting environmental standards and workers’ rights, and opening up our NHS to a takeover by US private corporations."
"This sell out deal won’t bring the country together and should be rejected. The best way to get Brexit sorted is to give the people the final say in a public vote."

The Liberal Democrats, who want to stop Brexit from happening altogether, have also opposed the deal.

What that means:

To get a majority in Parliament, Johnson needs all of his Conservative MPs to back his deal, plus the 21 lawmakers he expelled after they defied him in an effort to prevent a no-deal Brexit, plus the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party. For every one of those he loses, he must replace them with rebel-minded opposition lawmakers. Most estimates suggest that there between five and 20 Labour MPs who might support a Brexit deal in defiance of their leader – that makes things very tight for Johnson.

6:43 a.m. ET, October 17, 2019

A new customs arrangement for Northern Ireland is at the heart of the deal

We've been given our first glimpse of some of the details in the withdrawal agreement. Negotiators have hammered out a deal that that keeps Northern Ireland in the UK's customs territory, but also avoids the need for a customs border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

That's a big victory for Boris Johnson, and Barnier admitted that negotiations over the question of the Irish border had at times been "intense" and "difficult."

As part of the complex, dual-track plan, EU regulations will apply to all goods in Northern Ireland, meaning there would not need to be checks at the border. That's an important goal – during the long period of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, paramilitary nationalists in the Irish Republican Army repeatedly targeted borders posts and customs facilities.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 led to the dismantling of border infrastructure.

"Since day one, what really matters is the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland," said Barnier.
"What really matters is peace."

6:40 a.m. ET, October 17, 2019

Johnson has done the impossible. But his biggest challenge still awaits.

Boris Johnson is on his way to Brussels to take his Brexit victory lap. As well he might: He's achieved something he'd been told was impossible and has agreed a new Brexit deal with the EU Commission, replacing the thrice-defeated arrangement Theresa May struck with Europe last year.

Crucially, it revolves around a new arrangement for Northern Ireland that allows him to declare that he has got rid of the "backstop," the hated fallback position that kept the whole of the UK tied to the EU customs area.

But let's not get carried away. As he swept out of Downing Street this morning, Johnson left no small amount of chaos in his wake.

Like May, Johnson appears to not have secured the support of his Northern Irish allies, the Democratic Unionist Party. And as May found out, no DUP means defeat and humiliation in the British Parliament. 

The DUP issued a statement before news broke that a deal had been done, saying that "as things stand, we cannot support what being suggested." Minutes ago, they confirmed that statement still pertains.

So why has Johnson agreed a deal without the nod from the DUP? It's entirely possible that Johnson is attempting to bounce them into supporting him, for fear of what might follow.

If Johnson's deal fails in Parliament, it's very likely that it will trigger a series of events that could lead to a general election. That, in turn, could lead to a new government less sympathetic to the DUP's will. 

But, as Theresa May found out the hard way, the DUP doesn't really play games. And without the DUP's support, Johnson could find his own party turning on him.

Johnson moved a long way towards Brussels during his short period in office, in order to secure a new Brexit deal. But he may also have expedited his ejection from that same office, and in doing so, sealed his fate as the shortest-serving prime minister in British history.