Deal or no deal, the outcome of the talks with Brussels threaten to make or break Boris Johnson’s political legacy.
In the event of white smoke billowing overhead, will the result be viewed as a Maastricht moment of capitulation or a Thatcherite triumph of statecraft?
Harry Yorke: Tories fear Boris may cave in order to secure a deal
But even with the clock ticking down to December 31, veteran Conservative MPs are clear that they will not be pressured into backing what some fear could become “another Maastricht.”
While Brexit has put paid to Britain’s participation in ever-closer union, the remaining band of rebels from Sir John Major’s premiership are determined to ensure that any deal also delivers on the fundamental question of sovereignty.
This, they say, can only be realised if the UK is free to diverge from EU rules and regulations and takes back control of its fishing waters.
It means that Mr Johnson, like his three Tory predecessors in Number 10, could find himself facing a mutiny on the Tory backbenches should he fall into the trap of caving to Brussels in order to salvage the treaty.
A Tory Brexiteer likened the situation on Monday night to the early 1990s, when Sir John Major forced legislation through Parliament to ratify the Maastricht Treaty on the basis that he had secured key opt-outs, only for the UK to continue to be pulled down the path of integration.
“We fell for that in Maastricht…we won’t be voting for a deal that we can’t see the details on,” they added.
“Look at the Withdrawal Agreement – left open to interpretation – and at how that has played out. It’s a recipe for disaster. The devil will be in the detail and the issue is about the level playing field.”
Senior Tories are particularly concerned about the EU’s insistence on the level playing field – a common set of rules and standards designed to ensure Britain does not give advantages to its business which undermine the EU.
“We cannot accept dynamic alignment, end of story,” said Dr Liam Fox, the former trade secretary and one of the original Maastricht rebels, referring to the process of UK and EU standards moving in lockstep.
“I didn’t vote to leave the European Union because of immigration or money. I voted to leave the EU for constitutional reasons, which means the UK must have a say over our laws, not anyone else.
“Any concept of dynamic alignment, where we would automatically impose laws made by a foreign power over which we had no say, is unacceptable.
“On any practical issue compromise is possible. But we cannot compromise on the principle of sovereignty.”
As things stand, the Prime Minister and Lord Frost, his chief negotiator, are clear they will only countenance a series of “non-regression” clauses, ensuring that Britain will not lower its standards below the EU’s current baseline.
However, Michel Barnier, the bloc’s chief negotiator, has floated a system that would enable managed divergence but at the cost of added friction to trade, such as tariffs, if the UK strays too far from EU rules.
The UK would prefer instead to agree joint guiding principles, but this is in itself a bone of contention with Conservative MPs, who want to see the small print of any future system before they vote for the treaty.
“The basic point is that this [the treaty] has to be followed by legislation. The legislation implements the treaty,” said Sir Bill Cash, a prominent Brexiteer who found the Maastricht Referendum Campaign in opposition to the 1992 treaty.
“You need to have in the legislation the sovereignty which has been accepted in the treaty. The treaty, in black and white, has to be translated into the legislation and therefore it is essential that the treaty reflects the legal position [that the UK is sovereign] as enacted by Parliament.”
However, Sir Bernard Jenkin, a third Maastricht rebel, said: “The problem with Maastricht was the House of Commons was asked to approve the agreement in principle before we had seen any of the small print.
“I have absolutely no doubt that David Frost is going to be backed to the hilt by Boris to stick to the principles they have set out. I’m not worried as some of my other colleagues are, although it is understandable that they are worried given what has happened in the past.
“But that’s not happening this time.”
Senior Brexiteers are also keeping a close eye on fishing, amid suggestions that a compromise may be close.
While the UK wants to control access to its waters and boost the quotas of its fisherman, it has offered the EU a three-year transition period in which the bloc’s share of the catch would decrease over time.
The “glide path” is accepted by UK fishing bodies and the majority of Tory MPs who make up the European Research Group, on the basis that it will take several years for the industry to rebuild to the point that it is able to make use of an increased quota.
However, Brussels, pushed on by France, has offered to hand back just 18 per cent of the value of fish caught, as well as a much longer transition period of 10 years.
Although it is now expected that Mr Barnier will meet the UK halfway to secure a deal, Eurosceptics fear any concession by the EU could provide a “smokescreen” for Mr Johnson to give ground on the level playing field while claiming a symbolic victory.
“The fish issue, despite Macron’s faux rage, is a red herring,” said another MP. “They will concede on fish and expect us to concede on the other. What they really want is the level playing field, which will undermine our economic competitiveness going forward.”
Camilla Tominey: Boris has a distinct advantage over Thatcher
“What we are asking for is a very large amount of our own money back.”
It was November 1979 and Margaret Thatcher had only been in power six months but her success in securing a 66 per cent rebate from the EU is still remembered as one of the greatest achievements of her European policy.
Having played a key role campaigning for the UK to remain in the European Community in 1975, the newly-elected Prime Minister soon set about trying to renegotiate the seemingly punitive financial terms of Britain’s membership.
Conscious of the transactional (rather than ideological) relationship voters had with Europe, the grocer’s daughter was determined to prove to an electorate facing tough economic times that Britain was getting value for money.
During a press conference following an European Council meeting in Dublin, she explained that because of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the UK’s contributions exceeded its receipts by £2 to £1, leaving a net contribution of “£1,000 million.”
Brussels had offered Britain £350 million back but as Mrs Thatcher put it: “You would never have expected me to settle for one third of a loaf.”
Echoing the current stalemate in the Brexit talks, she talked of negotiations that “didn’t look like they were going to get anywhere”, confessing: “I’m not overly optimistic”.
It took another five years of wrangling before Mrs Thatcher successfully secured the UK rebate at Fontainebleau European Council in June 1984, which was then adopted the following May. Yet the move created a hostility between Britain and Brussels which arguably sowed the seeds for the referendum result 32 years later.
Despite the concession, Mrs Thatcher went on to become deeply suspicious of former Commission president Jacques Delors’ federalisation attempts, telling Brussels after his visit in 1988: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super state.”
Two years later, she uttered the immortal words: “Mr Delors said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the community, he wanted the Commission to be the executive and he wanted the Council of ministers to be the senate. No, no, no!”
She was ousted less than a month after that speech and the Conservatives under her successor John Major opted out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the Euro in 1992.
With current negotiations down to the wire, does Boris Johnson have any hope of securing a Brexit deal which echoes the Iron Lady’s rebate victory?
There are arguably only two ways the Prime Minister could achieve similar glory.
He could confound all expectations and achieve a deal that really does “get Brexit done” according to the terms of the Conservative Party manifesto upon which he was elected with an 80-seat majority a year ago.
That would mean a deal which takes back full control of our laws, our money, our trade policy, and our fishing waters.
With Brexiteer lawyers guaranteed to be scrutinising the small print of any deal as soon as it is published, nothing less than a return of full sovereignty to the UK will do.
Yet there is perhaps also a second, albeit riskier, way of Mr Johnson achieving Thatcherite, or even Churchillian levels of political glory.
With the public already inured to the idea of ‘no deal’, the Prime Minister would arguably be able to style out an “Up Yours, Delors!” moment by arguing that the EU’s unreasonableness meant that the only way to “get Brexit done” was by walking away.
Emmanuel Macron’s last-minute fishing demands arguably make it even easier for Mr Johnson to make this case with the electorate, since there is more British animus towards the French than the EU27 as a whole.
The ‘blame the French’ approach would also suit German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who does not want to be accused of a failure of statecraft any more than Mr Johnson.
Of course, hardcore remainers, the BBC, organisations like the CBI and the Twitterati would aggressively spin no deal as a massive defeat.
But as Mr Johnson himself has said: “People did not vote for colony status”.
As far as the public is concerned, he will be able to argue that no deal is better than a bad deal that “surrenders” UK sovereignty to Brussels in perpetuity. Amid all the criticisms of Mr Johnson being an indecisive ditherer, the one thing he has been clear on is that Brexit must mean Brexit.
Compared to Mrs Thatcher, Mr Johnson actually has one distinct advantage. Whereas she was constantly worried about what happened next in her relationship with the EU, this is no longer of concern.
When the Iron Lady was renegotiating the rebate, it was at the beginning of a 40-year debate about Britain’s relationship with the EU. Mr Johnson is now at the end of that debate.
This is no longer a case of saving a marriage but finalising a divorce.