I have watched a bit of Strictly Come Dancing this season and one of the best bits is when the judges make some technical comment on the dancing and you (I) have no idea what they are talking about. The clumsy choreography of these EU trade talks, on the other hand, is clearly visible to all.
Today’s “reverse turn” was Boris Johnson’s generous offer not to break international law. The EU is not likely to see this as much of a concession. It might ask sarcastically if there are any other international treaties that the UK would generously offer not to break. And it is bound to observe that the clauses of the Internal Market Bil that break international law would come into effect only if there were no trade deal.
Offering to drop them if there is a deal is merely confirming what Johnson was always intending to do in any case.
Still, the important thing is that Johnson wanted it to look as if he was trying. In that respect at least he is in keeping with the Strictly tradition. He desperately needs Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, to give him something over the next few days – the latest deadline is the end of Wednesday, Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, said earlier today. And it has been reported that the summit of EU leaders in Brussels will start two hours earlier than planned, at 1pm rather than 3pm on Thursday, which may be significant.
Perhaps today’s UK government statement offering to remove or deactivate the offending clauses in the draft legislation was Johnson’s way of saying to the EU that it doesn’t matter how ridiculous or transparent their counter-offer is; all he needs is something that he can pretend is a concession.
The choreography of the chorus line in the House of Commons today was designed to show that, unlike some prime ministers we won’t mention such as Theresa May, Johnson has the wholehearted support of his party.
There was something menacing in the undertone as MP after Conservative MP rose to declare their total support for and absolute confidence in the prime minister’s negotiating position – the more they protested their support the more it sounded like a warning against selling out.
But Johnson is nevertheless in a strong position from which to sell out. Provided the EU gives him something that he can present as a negotiating triumph, most of his MPs will focus on that and ignore whatever concessions he has made. He could give the EU all our fish in perpetuity and a level playing field made of gold, but as long as he can stand up in the Commons and declare that he has secured a good deal for Britain and beaten off some unreasonable demand that the EU never actually made, he will get away with it.
All he needs is a bit of choreography from the other side and he will tell his side that he has won the most famous victory since Agincourt – or some other tasteless reference to Anglo-continental slaughter in ages past – and they are so desperate to believe him that it will be true in their eyes.
I would guess from the length of Johnson’s phone conversation with von der Leyen tonight, and from his decision to go to Brussels, probably on Wednesday, that he thinks she will give him enough to claim to have won.
At least, I think that is how it is going to work out. The solid facts of this negotiation are that it is very much in the interest of both sides to reach a deal, and that there are no genuine obstacles to doing so. But it is hard to be sure when there are such levels of fantasy involved.
The problem with clumsy choreography is that there is always a danger, in the kind of technical term the Strictly judges would use, of tripping up and falling flat on your face.