Boris Johnson has to deliver a Brexit deal. And now he may be on track to do it

Simon Jenkins
Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The good ship Brexit surges forward, jagged rocks and whirlpools on all sides. Non-papers are on the table. The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, says: “We can have a deal.” The French and the Finns have given Boris Johnson until the end of the month to show “if his deal exists”. He wants to wait until after the Tory conference in two weeks, or even until the EU summit in four. What on earth is going on?

I still believe Johnson is on track to pull off a coup. He has an obvious problem, but with an obvious solution. Earlier this year he promised to leave the EU by 31 October “do or die … no ifs or buts”. This pledge was for no other purpose but to win the Tory leadership. It worked. Given his reputation as a liar, he really has no alternative but to deliver. Yet he needs help from Brussels. Otherwise he must endure the humiliation of a further Brexit delay.

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Enter problem number two. The only deal that enables the October deadline to be met is Theresa May’s deal that he himself supported last March. But it is – or was – anathema to much of his party and to Northern Ireland’s DUP, fused as the backbone of his support in the Commons. He cannot rely on Labour or the minority parties to back him should he revive May’s deal, especially given that they are now in the remain camp and think they have trapped him into further delay. So he needs his backwoodsmen onside, and they are still deferring to the DUP. Johnson is hamstrung by Northern Ireland. The curse of the “first” British empire is still alive and kicking.

Johnson’s strategy is to drive the Northern Irish to the limit. That is why the important meeting this week was not in Brussels or Luxembourg. It was between Dublin’s Leo Varadkar and the DUP leader, Arlene Foster. For months Foster has been nonsensically demanding that the UK leave the customs union with no hard border in Ireland and no border down the Irish Sea. It recalls the satirical Paisleyite demand that Britain rejoin Northern Ireland to the Scottish landmass as in prehistory, and rechannel the Irish Sea through Armagh and Lough Erne. This was revived last week in Johnson’s madcap suggestion of a bridge.

Foster has had a number of shocks recently. Her business community is appalled by the prospect of no deal and the loss of the EU single market. It could cost 40,000 jobs. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has warned that any hard border would be a “direct threat” to its members. More alarming, polls have shown that Northern Irish opinion is not only in favour of remain, but narrow majorities are now in favour of a customs union with the south rather than with Britain, and even in favour of Irish reunification. The DUP may be on the brink of becoming history.

Johnson would have to dress up his deal as May-plus or May-minus, but that is for wordsmiths

Challenged in Dublin on Wednesday about her intransigence, Foster confessed to “flexibility”, a word almost unknown in Northern Irish politics. She accepted that Northern Ireland’s geography meant distinguishing the Northern Ireland backstop from a “Northern Ireland-only deal”, involving a possible “special economic zone” in Ireland. That a restored Stormont should be “consulted” on such a zone was accepted by Brussels. The DUP appears to have drawn back from demanding a veto. No one is calling it a backstop. On such terminological niceties the rock of diplomacy sometimes rests.

It is now clear that Johnson’s lead negotiator, David Frost, has in his ring-file a form of words designed to offer long-term comfort to the EU and the Irish government. They are words that will be pressed on Foster and her colleagues – and on Tory backbenchers – as the deadlines approach. These words cannot be revealed to the EU or to parliament, since they can still frighten the horses. The EU is not yet the issue. Johnson can kiss and make up to the entire gang of 27, but that is no good if Churchill’s “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” still stand immutable. This is politics in the raw.

What now matters is timing. Johnson may have exasperated Brussels beyond endurance, but the EU must accept the crude realities of democracy – which it never does with good grace. I assume shrewder heads in the corridors of Brussels get the point. Deadlines are not for fun. They are part of the chemistry of politics. Johnson’s party conference is critical. He needs his ducks in a row.

Related: Boris Johnson calls for EU 'common sense' over Brexit backstop

People forget that what is being sought here is not a Brexit “deal” but rather a hiatus in a deal – a two-year pause in which to reach a new trade settlement, soft or hard, with the EU. What is needed is a form of words, in effect between Belfast and Dublin, ensuring that, should Britain eventually and stupidly leave the single market, special arrangements for Northern Ireland are feasible. They need only be feasible. If so, grownup EU negotiators need not obsess about a fixed backstop. An equilibrium of compromise is in the interest of both sides.

Johnson would have to dress up his deal as May-plus or May-minus, but that is for wordsmiths. His one need is to deliver formal Brexit on target. It would leave both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, now pledged to various forms of remain, up the electoral creek without a paddle. For Johnson it would be a real political coup, and set him up for an election.

Of course I could be wrong. But the alternative is beyond mad. It would require Johnson’s entire no-deal antics, in parliament and beyond, to be no more than a ghastly Bullingdon Club prank – a nation imposing a huge economic sanction on itself for nothing but its leader’s warped vanity. I cannot believe the prime minister wants that for his epitaph.

• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist