The National:

THE reverberations continue from Boris Johnson’s claim that he’s frozen EU-UK trade talks because the EU’s summit didn’t offer a complete acceptance of UK demands. This is bizarrely damaging from a number of points of view.

Firstly, have talks really stopped? It seems not. The two chief negotiators, Michel Barnier and David Frost, are in touch. Talks are even continuing in parallel on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol from last year’s Withdrawal Agreement – the agreement that Johnson’s government is threatening to renege on via the Internal Market Bill.

Secondly, the EU summit called clearly for talks to continue. Behind the scenes, there had been moves from both sides that looked, at least a bit, encouraging. The EU will not walk away from the talks. The UK is causing the problems here.

Thirdly, the idea that the much larger EU trade block will capitulate to UK demands is absurd. Johnson and Gove have cried crocodile tears at the fact that the UK’s 47-year EU membership, ripped up by this same duo, is not leading the EU to be more obedient to UK demands.

This is truly laughable; except, of course, it’s very serious.

READ MORE: Ian Blackford warns no-deal Brexit would ‘chuck communities under the bus’

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said today that a No-Deal Brexit would throw “business and communities under the bus”. This is surely the case. But even a thin, basic trade deal of the sort that could yet emerge is also going to be very damaging to UK jobs, growth, security and more.

It’s always been clear that there is no good Brexit. But the Conservatives’ ideological rhetoric on Brexit, in the driving seat, has led to a situation where Boris Johnson is choosing between a very damaging and an exceptionally damaging one.

ITV’s Robert Peston quotes a source saying Johnson isn’t even sure if he wants a deal or no deal. If true, then the Prime Minister’s theatrics over the EU summit are not just misguided and naive, but truly irresponsible ranting in the face of a storm.

Despite this deliberately created turbulence and uncertainty, a deal still looks more likely than not. The EU wants to ensure the UK does not gain decent access to its single market and then undercut EU companies by subsidising UK business intensively.

It would seem inconceivable for a UK prime minister to do this. Yet Johnson does have a track record

The EU wants access to UK fishing waters; the UK wants to be able to sell fish into EU markets. And the EU wants a strong dispute-settlement mechanism – fair enough, given the Internal Market bill breaks international law and trust has been broken.

There is, despite the theatrics, the lack of trust and the ever-shortening deadline, a deal to be done here: tariff-free trade on goods, some but not much access for services; a good-enough agreement on level-playing field issues, and reduced but still reasonable access to each other’s fishing waters.

The short and long-term shock to the UK economy of a No-Deal Brexit, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, would be substantial. There would indeed be chaos at borders and shortages across different sectors – including food and potentially medicines.

It would seem inconceivable for a UK prime minister to do this. Yet Johnson does have a track record here.

In June, months into the Covid-19 crisis, with the UK having one of the highest excess deaths totals in the world, Johnson decided not to extend the Brexit transition. The UK could have stayed in transition until the end of 2022. 

READ MORE: Westminster accused of 'disaster Toryism' as UK heads towards No-Deal Brexit

Instead, Johnson looked for a basic trade deal by the start of 2021 – one that will cause substantial problems itself at borders, to the economy, to individuals. But Johnson chose to stick with Brexiter ideology and not extend the transition period.

So it cannot be ruled out that Johnson’s government would impose a chaotic Brexit on a UK already facing a double-dip recession and huge political, economic and social strain from the Covid crisis. What may hold him back is not rationality but the political fall-out.

Keir Starmer has brought Labour level to the Conservatives in the polls in just a few months. Nicola Sturgeon’s approval ratings continue to soar far ahead of Johnson’s negative ratings, while support for independence grows too. The north of England mayors, notably Andy Burnham in Manchester are in dispute with the UK Government, Wales and Northern Ireland, like Scotland, are embarked on their own semi-lockdowns and circuit-breakers.

There were already mutterings in the last month or two, amongst the Conservative ranks, about whether Johnson was really up to the job. So Johnson may look to save his own skin, and claim a rhetorical win on Brexit while agreeing a thin, very damaging trade deal. That is the least worst outcome.

But a No-Deal outcome remains possible: it would represent the ultimate self-destructive victory of Brexiter fantasy over reality.