And so we approach the final act, all smoke and mirrors. Brussels and Britain are miles apart, and yet within a whisker of an agreement. Both sides are determined to win the argument, and yet closer than ever to mutually compatible interpretations. It isn’t particularly reassuring that the Brexit crunch point feels like the slow climax towards the finale of a conjuring trick. Are we gearing up for the clean break that people voted for, or merely the political illusion of an exit? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: it is all politics.
Whether a deal is struck depends on one simple question: does Boris Johnson believe he can sell it to Tory MPs and the public as the real deal?
For this he needs a tangible win on the symbolic question of fish – rather than, perhaps, the dryer issue of state aid. The EU may in the end offer, for example, a quota boost for Scottish fishermen (doubly important considering the Scottish elections looming next year). But Brussels would expect a major level playing field concession in return. Perhaps a ratchet clause that spells the UK’s continued alignment with EU regulations. And perhaps a dispute resolution mechanism that sneakily references the ECJ rather than an independent arbitration panel. These would be costly concessions for Britain, but luckily for Brussels, they are complicated and convoluted. The PM may be tempted to wager that MPs and Brexiteer voters will struggle to grasp their significance. Especially if the Tory party closes ranks with the same discipline as it did with the divorce deal.
But has the party’s infighting over lockdown changed the political equation? When Boris Johnson renegotiated the Withdrawal Agreement, Brexiteer MPs united behind him as their only hope after the horrors of Theresa May. Today, they are disappointed and embittered. Steve Baker is plotting a lockdown revolt in the Commons, and the ERG has warned it will vote down any deal that impinges on Britain's sovereignty.
If Tory backbenchers mean business this time, it’s a game changer. Boris Johnson may calculate that, should Brexiteers publicly judge his deal to be a bad one, only he will be blamed. In contrast, he can blame a no-deal on the EU’s bad faith. Perhaps this scenario also suits Brussels, which would happily blame a no-deal on Britain’s bid to renege on the Withdrawal Agreement.
In other words – whether the outcome is a clean or questionable Brexit – it all comes down to finding two versions of the truth on which both sides can agree to disagree. It is not the technical detail of Brexit – but the political pageantry – that is mind-bending.