With just days to go before one of them becomes the new British prime minister, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have declared that the Northern Ireland backstop is dead.
The backstop was included in the deal agreed between outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May and the European Union, and it was intended to guarantee a hard border wouldn’t return to Ireland.
Mainly because of the backstop, the Brexit deal failed to win approval in Parliament in Britain and May agreed to resign. The result of the vote among Tories for her successor will be announced next Tuesday.
Both Johnson and Hunt, the only two candidates still in the race, this week promised to throw the backstop out of any deal they negotiate with the EU.
Their comments significantly hardened their Brexit positions and followed warnings by Tanaiste Simon Coveney that the impacts in Ireland following a no-deal Brexit would be “very damaging.”
Pressed in a Sun newspaper and Talk Radio debate on whether he would seek a time limit to the backstop, Johnson – hot favorite to win the Tory leadership contest – said, “The answer is no. The problem is really fundamental. It needs to come out.”
Hunt agreed, saying “the backstop, as it is, is dead.”
Hunt added that there had to be a new way. “I don’t think tweaking it with a time limit will do the trick. If we are going to get a deal we must have an absolute cast-iron commitment to the Republic of Ireland that we will not have border infrastructure.
“So what they liked in the backstop was the fact it guaranteed that. If we are going to solve that we need to find another way of guaranteeing that same thing.”
The EU has repeatedly ruled out reopening May’s withdrawal agreement to revisit the backstop.
The Guardian newspaper’s Brexit correspondent Lisa O’Carroll reported EU sources insisting that Johnson and Hunt’s plan to axe the border backstop is doomed to failure and will be rejected.
She reported, “If the next prime minister goes to Brussels with such a plan, he will be told in no uncertain terms that it amounts to a declaration of no deal.”
Voting opened up to the Conservative Party’s 160,000 members, on July 6, to choose their new leader.
The winner, and new prime minister, is expected to be announced on July 23. The following day, May will travel to Buckingham Palace to resign as prime minister before Queen Elizabeth.