Reluctant puppeteers give the appearance of legs to a corpse deal. For now.
"If we can just get the EU to agree to something they have categorically ruled out since day one, and have no political or economic incentive to agree to, then we might just be able to get this across the line by 19th October."
Taking a leaf out of Boris Johnson's journalistic career, the above is an entirely made up quote from a fictional government insider. It does however represent what the government would have to believe - sincerely - if the offer that it has sent across to Brussels is anything other than "a document in function of a general election" as one EU diplomat reportedly put it.
We now see the dance of two puppeteers giving the appearance of legs to a corpse deal with both sides aiming to show the other as the unconstructive partner, the bad faith negotiator and the bringer of death to a "fair and reasonable compromise".
An anticlimactic address
At one point in his first speech as prime minister, Boris Johnson described fibre broadband as being like "tendrils of super-informative vermicelli" in his characteristic effusive style. To use the same simile, his speech as a whole was about as limp as vermicelli. The performance was a breezy pitter patter through the government's previous announcements on health, policing and education with surprisingly few lines (and decibels) dedicated to Brexit despite No. 10 briefing journalists overnight that this would be the moment that the PM presented his 'final offer' to Brussels.
The prime minister took the opportunity to call the Conservatives "the party of the NHS" and tried to establish co-ownership of NHS rhetoric in much the same way that previous Conservative leaders have done for decades.
Later on Wednesday the government published the PM's letter to Jean Claude Juncker and an explanatory note on what was being offered as an alternative to the Irish backstop, which the government claims can form the basis of a new deal. The new pitch to the EU, the legal text of which the government is so far refusing to publish (despite requests from MPs and Juncker to do so), involves a new protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland whereby Northern Ireland would align with the EU on the regulation of industrial goods including agrifoods while remaining inside the UK's custom union.
To ensure compliance with the Good Friday Agreement the government has suggested that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive would give their consent to the arrangements during the transition period and then every four years thereafter. There is no clarity in what has been published on what arrangement would be defaulted to if the Assembly or Executive ever rejected the proposed setup.
What is also unclear is exactly what physical infrastructure would be required to enable this arrangement. The prime minister, defending his proposal at the despatch box on Thursday, stated unequivocally that no physical infrastructure would be required but his answer was staggered and did nothing to inspire confidence in those that are sceptical of what may amount to a rehashed version of 'alternative arrangements' or 'technology-enabled frictionless trade'.
Fortunately for the government, the DUP have decided to make a blur of their own red lines. They have given the proposed new protocol their provisional seal of approval despite the fact that it self-evidently means that Northern Ireland will be given a different regulatory treatment than the rest of the UK and there will need to be at least "some" checks on the Irish Sea border.
Perhaps textual analysis isn't their strong point, or maybe they know something we don't - or maybe they're just playing along to support the government's blame game strategy in exchange for support from Cummings's electoral brain come polling time. It's all just speculation at this stage.
The EU leaders for their part have apparently clocked the corpse deal for what it is and are guarding their own blame game positions more or less as carefully as is worthwhile (given that the Leave-supporting press in the UK is never going to be swayed regardless of what they say or do). Juncker responded by noting that there are still "some problematic points" but welcomed the proposals rather than rejecting them outright. This is key for the EU in defending against the charge of blame come the end of the month.
Buried behind the PM's speech and the new protocol proposal was a statement from the government announcing their intention to prorogue parliament for three days in order to prepare for a Queen's Speech on 14 October. Stakeholder reactions have so far been muted but we can expect this debate to kick off properly over the weekend.
The rationale given is that the government wants to clear the parliamentary backlog, prepare for the unveiling of a new slew of primary legislation and allow enough time for minor alterations to the layout of the Lords for the speech itself. It's all palpably unconvincing, but they might just get away with it if it's only three days (goes the thinking).
Can the PM go to jail?
As yet another sign of the times, SNP MSP and leading player in the Supreme Court victory Joanna Cherry QC is in Scotland's highest court today hoping to secure an interdict that would stop Boris Johnson from not complying with the Benn Act and have the PM facing imprisonment if he tries. It provides a further embarrassment to Labour that the SNP appear to be doing all the legal legwork when their own shadow Brexit secretary is a former head of the Crown Prosecution Service.
At the time of writing this blog, the court had just heard the government's legal counsel state that the prime minister will seek an extension if the Benn Act conditions are met on 19 October, in obvious contradiction to the PM's previous statements that the UK will leave on 31 October "do or die". Everyone is rightly a bit confused, trying to work out what game No. 10 could be playing (because it has to be a cunning plan rather than a back-to-the-wall capitulation.).
Not at all last minute, not at all desperate
We also witnessed this week the Department for Health and Social Care put in force an immediate ban on the parallel exporting of 30 medicinal products to prevent wholesalers moving critical stock out of the UK to secure higher prices if sterling drops in the run up to a potential no deal exit. There is a reasonably long list of products which cannot be exported, including any form or strength of progesterone and any form or strength of adrenaline.
Nobody wants an election in December it seems. All reports suggest that it must take place in either late November or we must wait until spring as far as the Conservatives and Labour are concerned. They worry that an election during a cold snap in the run up to Christmas will have marginal voters frozen to their living room sofas rather than out taking part in a vote.
One issue that seems to be absent from the leaked thoughts on election timings is the prospect of the UK going into an official recession. The ONS will publish estimates for GDP growth for Q3 in November. Even if it's 'only' a 0.1% dip, that gives opposition parties the gift of undoing one of the central pillars of Conservative elections gone by: the claim that only they can be trusted to steward the economy and public finances responsibly.
The puppet dance continues
What we're all waiting to find out now is whether the PM and his advisors believe it is better for the Conservatives' electoral chances for the PM to stand aside and let their opponents be the ones to implement the "surrender bill" and agree to a 3-month extension, or stay in post and have a civil servant sign the request. If the PM does stay, depending on what happens with the extension request, it may actually benefit Jeremy Corbyn to keep Johnson in No 10 for a while to help hammer home the message that he is a lame duck who can't deliver on headline promises.
Either way, whenever the general election happens, the voters are likely to be presented with the option of electing their very own Brexit martyr (although now that the PM has, it seems, signed the extension request it may not be possible to present him this way, despite Downing Street's insistence that the UK will still be leaving the EU on 31 October). Whether enough former UKIP-ers and leave-supporting Labour voters will be drawn to this in key marginals in the north will keep Cummings and colleagues up at night. Stealing sleep from the rest of the United Kingdom will be whether any potential new government has any realistic prospect of making progress in resolving the Brexit melodrama-tragicomedy.
For now, enjoy the puppet show.