Peter Foster @pmdfoster Europe Editor of the Daily Telegraph. Formerly based in Washington DC, Beijing and New Delhi. Opinions my own. Jun. 07, 2019 4 min read

So before everyone (particularly Tory Party leadership candidates like @MattHancock) gets carried away with talk about 'time limits' or 'timetables' for the Irish backstop...based on some hypothesising by observers like me and @BBCkatyaadler we need to talk... 1/thread #brexit

First the difference between 'time-limits' and 'time-tables' as mooted by Katya in this thread which has the attention of @BethRigby
@jameskirkup and others... /2

Katya frames talk of a 'time-table' with makes key point I have also made in recent threads, which is that realpolitik means new PM gets a hearing for a new approach, but that the new PM's credibility will rest on their ability to demonstrate majorities in Parliament for a deal/3

But we need to distinguish clearly between a 'timetable' for the Irish protocol falling away piecemeal and a 'time-limit'....they are very different things.

To be clear, the piecemeal 'time-table idea is already IN the Irish protocol... /4

It is the concept of the Protocol applying "in whole or in part"... see Article 1.4 (p306 of the Protocol here: 

So this is not 'lipstick on the pig'. It IS the pig. /5

Which is also why it won't cut the Parliamentary mustard in London.

If this is the EU 'offer' it cannot deliver the stable majority that Boris (or whoever) needs to convince the EU to make concessions. This is a chicken-egg dynamic that crippled May too. /6

A 'time-limit' or 'sunset clause' (about which I have hypothesised a bit recently) is a very different beast - and it IS essential, I suspect to any hope of getting the Withdrawal Agreement over the line in Westminster.

Why so? .... /7

Because in the mind of Brexiteers it changes the dynamic of the search for "alternative arrangements" to deliver an invisible border in Ireland...while the UK seeks to leave the EU customs union and single market. /8

At the moment the EU and Irish is committed only to 'best endeavours' to make it work - when everyone knows that the Irish Govt and the Commission doesn't believe technology can deliver that border in the near term. And certainly not by 2021 as some Brexiteers have demanded. /9

A 'time-limit' or sunset clause would, in the mind of Brexiteers, be what drives the EU/Irish to sincerely make solutions work, and not to dig in around the (?impossibly?) high bar set by the commitment to "no additional infrastructure and related checks and controls". /10

At this point, the EU - which has held the door open to technical 'alternative arrangements' in which it doesn't really believe as a way to get the deal over the line- could be cornered by it's own logic. /11

Because as @MichelBarnier told the @nybooks in an interview a couple of weeks back, it could work 'in time'. /12 

So IF Boris showed he could pass the Withdrawal Agreement with a five to seven year "sunset clause" attached - so that's 7-9 years with the transition period added, potentially...why could the EU not accept? IF they are serious about best endeavours? How long to they need? /13

My point in hypothesising about a 'time limit' is that this is NOT an easy thing for the EU to dismiss when framed in this way....whatever is being said now about "not a dot or comma" being changed, as I recently reported. But the path is v v narrow /14 

Even candidates like @MattHancock who see this being 'in play' are unrealistic about it..talking about a solution being delivered "as soon as possible" within the implementation period.

If that is the expectation London, we're sunk..../15

...because even in the benign Dover Calais world, HMRC can't see a tech border working til 2030 at best.

So it may well be that Boris or whoever can't sell this at home; can't find a majority and is back where May was - defined as sellout/traitor to cause /16

The EU could also just say 'no' - declining to set a precedent of brinkmanship for the trade talks; declining to squeeze the Irish Govt if it digs in against (tho No Deal in five weeks v a political headache in five years is a tough choice) /17

The Irish also make the point that five year 'time limit' on the backstop creates another ticking-clock for a 'no deal' and a potential border poll...

Northern Ireland politics is "allergic to deadlines", so a time-limit becomes a 'border poll countdown'..../18

So to be clear, there are huge political constraints on both sides...

We are still essentially talking about massaging over May's, as I've said, that was created by gravity, not strategy. /19

This always required a "willing suspension" of disbelief by MPs that it was worth taking the deal since it at least gave them a shot at the 'sunny uplands'...

May couldn't do it. Perhaps Boris the real threat of a 'no deal' closes in. But I'm not betting on it /20ENDS

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