Maybe we were too hard on Boris Johnson. Maybe Brits won’t need to stockpile medicine and water, maybe Ireland and Northern Ireland won’t be cut apart, and maybe the United Kingdom won’t crash out of the European Union at the end of this month.
All those maybes count as progress in the Brexit saga that has paralyzed the U.K. for more than 2 1/2 years. Until this month, it seemed likely that intransigence on both sides of the English Channel, combined with the polarization of British politics, would lead to the calamity of a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31.
Now, there is the possibility of a less-unhappy ending. And the credit goes to Mr. Johnson, the Brexiter-by-convenience who became Prime Minister four months ago after his predecessor, Theresa May, succumbed to the political injuries she suffered in trying to divorce the EU without splitting the Conservative Party.
Ms. May now sits on the sidelines as Mr. Johnson tries to push through a Brexit deal that the EU approved on Friday, and which prompted some in Brussels to hail the Prime Minister as a saviour.
We’ll see. Mr. Johnson has since suffered repeated setbacks. On Saturday, Parliament narrowly voted against his deal, instead adopting an amended version that delays final approval until after Parliament passes the detailed legislation to enact the withdrawal agreement.
That meant Mr. Johnson was forced to write to the EU and ask for a deadline extension, something he swore he would never do – and which he urged the EU to reject in a separate letter he sent the same day.
On Tuesday, Parliament voted in favour of the amended deal on second reading, a boost for Mr. Johnson in that the bill can now move forward. But Parliament then voted against a government bid to review the 110-page bill in just three days, thereby making it inevitable that the Oct. 31 deadline will be missed.
Mr. Johnson has now, in his words, “paused” the legislation while waiting to hear from the EU about a deadline extension that can no longer be avoided – but not before he petulantly threatened to kill the bill entirely and call a snap election.
And even while kvetching about extending the deadline, Mr. Johnson is claiming victory, pointing out that Parliament has finally approved a Brexit deal, one that he vows will be the agreement that sees the U.K. out the door.
But that is too optimistic.
The Prime Minister’s proposed deal is problematic. It hinges on what has been called the “Irish backstop” – an agreement between the U.K. and the EU that was originally proposed by Ms. May, and under which the border between Ireland, which is in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., would remain open to free trade and the movement of people.
Mr. Johnson’s version is more complicated than Ms. May’s. It would keep Northern Ireland aligned with the EU’s Customs Union while remaining in the U.K.’s customs territory, but it adds a provision giving Northern Ireland to right to consent to stay in the arrangement beyond December, 2020, with the possibility of one two-year extension.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which holds the majority of Northern Ireland’s seats in the British Parliament, is opposed to the deal, partly because it fears the arrangement is a possible precursor to a united Ireland.
Others in Parliament, including the Opposition Labour Party, argue that Mr. Johnson’s deal gives away too much and that it would oblige the U.K. to quickly seek trade deals with other countries, putting it in a weak negotiating position.
And Mr. Johnson, who does not have a working majority in Parliament, still faces the ire of the 21 former Conservative MPs that he crudely expelled from the party for voting in favour of a law that prevents the U.K. from leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
The most likely outcome at this point is that the EU will grant a deadline extension, something it is happy to do. With a lot of luck, the final result will be an orderly withdrawal.
But even that cannot be considered a happy outcome. Brexit, even a calm and negotiated one, is not a good idea. It would be a permanent drag on the U.K. economy and would likely cause Scotland to leave the union.
Mr. Johnson is no saviour.