Macron and Merkel have offered Johnson nothing – apart from a means to fail

The cliche “good cop, bad cop” has been used too much about this first episode of shuttle boat diplomacy from Boris Johnson. Merkel, apparently, is the first and Macron the latter.

It is certainly true to say that during the Brexit process, Macron has taken a more resolute line.

His starting point in all matters is the preservation of the European single market, an institution he wishes to see integrate further.

His view is that British political instability risks infecting the rest of the EU and derailing that integration.

Merkel, by contrast, has lived up to her reputation as a fixer. The Metternich of our age. She has tried, insofar as she’s felt able, to ease Britain’s exit.

The mood music from Johnson’s meetings in Paris and Berlin these last days, has accorded with that recent history.

But when you leave aside the Kremlinology, the body language, the bonhomie detector, the two leaders of Europe were, in reality, saying the same thing – if there’s an alternative to the backstop, bring it to us.

This led to much cheer in Downing Street.

The tabloid newspapers were replete with talk of diplomatic triumph – so refreshing, they say, after the doom-laden, if not increasingly desperate, final trips of the May years.

But Macron and Merkel have, in fact, merely handed Johnson a hospital pass, a means to fail.

They have set him a task so Herculean, so difficult, it makes a Michael Gove Maths GCSE look like a walk in the park: To come up with a solution to the Irish backstop problem which will negate the need for the backstop to ever be implemented – within 30 days.

To all those who have treated this as a great coup, it might be worth wondering, if such a thing existed might not Theresa May (or indeed Boris Johnson) have come up with it by now?

This has been the position all along. Some talk of the backstop as if it were the operative policy of the EU.

It is not, it is, well…a backstop. It is an insurance policy, to be used to keep the Irish border seamless only if alternative arrangements cannot be found.

So Merkel and Macron have offered Johnson… nothing, just a timetable to provide answers to a question which they know do not exist.

The technological solutions the PM often cites are largely impractical and years away.

An internal Home Office presentation I revealed in March said that it would not be possible to roll out a fully functioning system which would negate the use of border checks until 2030.

Given the reliability of big government IT projects we might assume it would be much later than that. No border regime exists like it anywhere in the world.

So Macron and Merkel can afford to look magnanimous; for if and when the PM fails to produce satisfactory alternatives they can claim that they tried. As for so many actors in the Brexit game now, they are thinking to the future and how they might deflect the blame.

If Johnson were willing to accept a longer transition period – during which time EU regulations and rules still apply to the UK – then it might be possible to expedite alternatives. That would probably be acceptable to the EU and Ireland.

But it would not be to his own Brexiter backbenchers, many of whom can smell the tantalising aroma of the purest and hardest Brexit possible, which is now just around the corner.

So the prime minister has homework which will elude even a man of his education.

Perhaps though, when students of the future are doing theirs, writing essays about the tortured history of Brexit, they might wonder if these trips represented an opportunity lost.

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The reaction to Johnson from the EU hasn’t been as fierce as some feared. With European economic indicators worsening, there is a desire from across the EU to finally lance the Brexit boil.

Had Johnson come to office, as a new prime minister, with momentum at his back and requested modifications – and not removal – to the backstop, it is conceivable the EU would have acquiesced.

As it is, they’ve just handed Johnson a blank cheque. But he does not have the ability to write it.

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