The so-called October surprise is a phenomenon associated with US Presidential elections. In the frenetic climate of Washington DC where surprise is one of the few constants it is hard to imagine any single event dramatically shifting the electoral outcome in the current political maelstrom.
One year ago, just a week before a decisive meeting of the European Council on Brexit, the EU had its own version of an October surprise. This was when, better late than never, a last-minute deal that had appeared to be improbable yielded an agreed Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.
It was described in Trumpian terms by the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, as “a great new Brexit Deal” and was represented politically as snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and delivering on his leadership contest pledge of “Brexit - do or die.”
On the back of this Johnson fought a general election to “get Brexit Done” and won what he hailed in his own words as “a stonking election win.”
A large Brexit-fuelled Tory majority passed the UK’s Withdrawal Bill at the first time of asking and the stage was set for months of negotiations.
“The EU response has been measured, cool and calm. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has engaged in virtual political diplomacy with EU leaders, suggesting he wants a deal but is willing to walk”
Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, weeks after its foundation, rose like a spectacular firework in last summer’s European Parliament elections only to fall back to earth with a thud as it noisily brexited at the end of January.
The Tories had captured Brexit Britain and safeguarded themselves against the short-lived threat of the Faragist flank.
The ascent of Dominic Cummings to the post of Chief Advisor at 10 Downing Street, of Michael Gove Minister to the Duchy of Lancaster with responsibilities including preparations for a no-deal Brexit and the appointment of a new lead negotiator David, now Baron, Frost stiffened the Tory spine.
A signal of intent was confirmed in June when the deadline came and passed for the UK to seek an extension of the transition period beyond the end of 2020. Negotiations made limited progress up to that point.
Michel Barnier asserted that the EU “continued to engage sincerely and constructively” but that the UK had “not shown the same level of engagement and readiness to find solutions.” Talk of intensifying the talks ensued.
“There are enough outstanding issues to facilitate the fog of compromise and the political optics of all appearing to win”
Early in September the British government turned up the heat and introduced a UK Internal Market Bill, unilaterally rewriting part of the sensitive Northern Ireland protocol, violating the Withdrawal Agreement and breaching international law.
The EU response has been measured, cool and calm. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has engaged in virtual political diplomacy with EU leaders, suggesting he wants a deal but is willing to walk.
We know there are “persistent and serious divergences” with three crunch issues outstanding: solid and long-term guarantees of open and fair competition with clear rules and enforcement mechanisms; effective governance, robust enforcement, dispute resolution mechanisms and appropriate remedies; and a stable long-term agreement on fisheries.
The EU has stood united and must remain so. Everyone has been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. All have had their weaknesses exposed - none more so than Boris Johnson, whose record of mismanagement of the crisis has been the worst in Europe.
A hard Brexit kick to an ailing UK and EU economy is highly undesirable and can be avoided.
All negotiating endgames turn on concessions. There are enough outstanding issues to facilitate the fog of compromise and the political optics of all appearing to win.
The time to decide is upon us. Failure should not be contemplated but it is a risk because we are living in an age of uncertainty, one where too many norms are honoured more in their breach than in their observance.