What is Boris Johnson up to? Commentators, experts and the EU27 puzzle over the shambolic, gung-ho Johnson drive to No Deal, wondering if he means it and, if so or indeed if not, then what comes next.

But it’s clear what Johnson is up to – he’s up to staying in power for as long as possible. This may involve an election very soon, so his right-wing, populist government needs to up its poll ratings and fast (one more Brecon by-election and they’re in real trouble).

It’s also clear what the current strategy is: lie about No Deal, don’t talk about what his preferred Brexit deal would look like, and do make a cascade of unlikely campaign-trail promises about spending, albeit billions of it on No Deal preparations.

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The Johnson & co line tells us that: the UK will leave the EU on October 31 come hell or high water (we may get both); the UK Government will not accept the backstop in any form, not even amended; and this is all the EU’s fault because EU leaders will not accept changes to the Withdrawal Agreement and backstop, only to the political declaration on the future relationship.

And Johnson won’t enter talks or meet Merkel or Macron or others until the EU abandons its backstop deal with May, almost two years in the making. Despite this bluster, Johnson’s Brexit adviser did venture to Brussels this week to set out this line and to get the EU’s anticipated rebuff.

The fundamental dishonesty here, by this populist UK Government, is Johnson’s claim he will not allow a hard Irish border. But this is the so-called Brexit trilemma: you can’t have an open Irish border, an integrated UK market, and leave the EU’s customs union and single market. You can have a hard Irish border and a free trade deal with the EU – with hard borders at all other UK-EU borders too. Or you can have a border down the Irish Sea, leaving Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union and single market, the rest of the UK outside it. Or the whole UK can stay in the customs union and single market (creating a major democratic deficit but resolving the Irish border problem).

This explains why Boris Johnson is saying little about his preferred Brexit model, refusing discussions with Merkel, Macron, Tusk or Juncker. A future UK-EU free trade deal would either mean a hard Irish border or an Irish Sea border. The ‘alternative arrangements’ unicorns are just that – imaginary. So rather than have EU leaders, opposition politicians (not necessarily Labour), experts and all point this out, Johnson simply blusters that the border will be kept open, somehow resolved in future talks.

This is deeply dishonest politics: tell the voters there’s a feasible Brexit deal out there when it’s an impossible, imaginary one (about as real as the Boris-built cardboard box buses), and blame the EU for not being open to this fictitious deal. Then either impose a chaotic, damaging No Deal on the UK (with serious damage to Ireland as well as other EU states) or look to Westminster to block it, then race for an election claiming No Deal is the EU’s fault but Johnson’s pretend deal is real.

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In Scotland, Ruth Davidson’s Tories are cleaving desperately to this line – at least those that aren’t the gung ho, No Deal true-believers. Davidson agrees with Johnson a deal is the priority but thinks No Deal is a bad thing – the impossibility of Johnson’s deal set to one side, reality and facts ignored. The increasing damage as investment falters, the pound falls and the Bank of England sets a 1 in 3 chance of a recession – all of which will be nothing compared to the economic, political and social chaos of an actual No Deal – are blithely accepted by the Scottish Tories alongside their English and Welsh counterparts.

One central irony here is that such fake arguments, pretending compatibility of a free trade Brexit deal with an open Irish border, would be jumped on, in the Scottish context, with the Tories telling the SNP there will be unavoidable border problems if Scotland chooses independence once the UK has left the EU. Johnson as prime minister, a looming No Deal Brexit and failing UK politics are all grist to the independence mill. But anything other than a customs union/single market Brexit does indeed create border challenges for an independent Scotland unless Brexit is halted. Consistency, though, is not the point in Tory politics today.

Yet Brexit has taught us, those of us who don’t pretend to believe in unicorns, that border problems are real and damaging. An independent Scotland in the EU, with the UK outside it (with a basic free trade deal), would mean border checks vis-a-vis the UK – some tariffs, rules of origin and regulatory checks and barriers to services provision. But unlike for the UK with Brexit, an independent Scotland in the EU would retain open borders to the EU, remaining part of its single market and customs union.

That’s just one Brexit and independence scenario. Another scenario, where the UK stays indefinitely in the EU’s customs union (as foreseen in the backstop), would have many fewer border checks (though still some) compared to a Johnson-style free trade deal. There are other scenarios too.

But as the threat of No Deal causes increasing damage – and if No Deal actually happens – and as UK politics fractures and decays, the protests greeting Johnson in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may soon come to look polite indeed. Measured analysis of border issues in the face of an out-of-control, dishonest and shambolic UK Government may be trumped by outrage and large poll shifts. Whether voters turn on these lies to sweep this Government rapidly out of power in an early election and/or move towards independence in Scotland, and even Wales too, and to a border poll in Northern Ireland, is an open question. But Johnson’s aim of power for power’s sake may soon prove as unsteady and volatile as his border unicorns.

Kirsty Hughes is director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations