(Bloomberg) — Staunch Brexit-backers in Britain’s ruling Conservative Party are showing signs of getting ready to do the thing they have until now found impossible: Compromise.
If they do make their move, it will bring the prospect of a deal with the European Union closer than ever before.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is poised to present the full legal text of his proposed divorce agreement to the EU within days — a moment that negotiators in Brussels see as the final realistic chance of securing an orderly exit for the U.K.
But that text must satisfy more than just the 27 other European member states — it must be acceptable to the divided, exhausted, and ungovernable members of Britain’s parliament.
The U.K. is due to leave the EU on Oct. 31 and Johnson says he is determined to deliver Brexit on time — even if that means doing so with no deal to cushion the impact on trade. Any agreement must pass through the British parliament in London but Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, tried and failed three times to win backing for the contract she negotiated with the bloc.
Johnson is vowing to use the final month before Brexit day to step up efforts to get a deal that will be acceptable in both Brussels and London. The EU wants to know that any deal it signs will win the backing of the British Parliament.
The most difficult group Johnson needs to win over is arguably the 28 so-called “Spartans” — pro-Brexit Conservatives who voted against May’s deal three times and ultimately forced her out of office.
When May tried to persuade hardline Tory euro-skeptics to back her agreement, they refused because they believed a purer form of Brexit option was available. This time, they’re not sure that’s true.
“It’s no longer a question of ‘we could do better,’” Andrew Rosindell, one of the Spartans, said in an interview. “We’ve reached the end of the road.”
The Tory hardliners on their own aren’t enough to pass a deal. Johnson would still probably need the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, and some Labour MPs. Here, too, there were positive signs on Monday.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said she’s willing to look at the idea of a time-limit on the contentious Irish border “backstop” — a policy designed to ensure there are no checks on goods crossing the U.K.-Ireland frontier.
If a deal looked close to passing, some of the more than 20 Labour MPs who have said they’d be willing to vote for one might do so, to get Brexit finished.
In September, members of Parliament took the unprecedented step of forcing through a new law –against the government’s wishes — to stop Johnson enacting his threat to exit the EU with no deal. That radical move has changed the calculation for the Spartans.
The group takes its name from the Greek warriors who held off the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.
Some of these pro-Brexit Tories fear that Johnson could be forced to delay Brexit again, and would then find himself fighting a general election having broken a promise to get Britain out of the EU. The Tories would then be vulnerable to losing votes to the purist Brexit Party of Nigel Farage, and ultimately at risk of being ousted by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
“An extension this time would mean an election,” Rosindell said in Manchester, England, where the Tories are holding their annual conference. “If we hadn’t got out by Oct. 31, the chances of a Corbyn government are very high.”
He’s not the only hardliner showing a willingness to compromise. Mark Francois, deputy chairman of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, told a meeting at the Conservative conference that some form of “backstop” to deal with the contentious issue of how goods moved between Northern Ireland, in the U.K., and Ireland, still in the EU, wasn’t necessarily a problem.
“If there is some form of deal, be it over the backstop or anything else, then I and my colleagues will look at it and read it very carefully,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re talking about international treaty law. My acid test will be does it genuinely mean we leave the EU.”
One of the government officials involved in drafting the British proposal said it would be acceptable to the Spartans.
According to Rosindell, they’re now a receptive audience. “Boris will be in a much better position than Theresa was six months ago,” he said. “It’s much more likely that we would vote for it, if it’s an improved deal.”
–With assistance from Tim Ross and Ian Wishart.
To contact the reporters on this story: Robert Hutton in London at firstname.lastname@example.org;Kitty Donaldson in London at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org, Emma Ross-Thomas
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