It’s the “new normal”: months of misery, uncertainty and curtailment of freedom of movement and action, economic crisis, and yet another wave just when you might have thought or hoped that we were through the worst of it. Yes, Brexit is back.

Like Covid, it never went away, and many of us must now wearily suppose that it never will. The stories that have pushed it back into the headlines, above even the man in France who blew up his house swatting a fly (co-opted at once, naturally, as a metaphor for Brexit) are that the Prime Minister thinks we should drop trade talks and “move on” if there is no agreement by the European Council meeting on October 15, and the suggestion that sections of the Internal Market Bill, to be published this week, will remove the legal force of aspects of the existing Withdrawal Agreement.

The former might be seen – and has been, by both sides of the debate – as a standard bluff. Boris Johnson’s supporters and even hardliners sceptical of his stance (some on the Tory benches) maintain that this is a normal part of the process. If you can’t threaten to refuse terms or walk out, you’re not really negotiating at all. The EU’s track record of refusing concessions unless and until such a position is taken is a reasonable ground for that claim – and evidence that it’s a game the EU’s pretty good at.

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Meanwhile, opponents can claim that it’s bluster to provide cover for some compromise that doesn’t embarrass the Government. This is of a piece with the view that the WA itself was a UK climbdown which Mr Johnson sold as a cave-in by the EU – a very plausible reading. If so, however, the accusation of bluster is much the same as the defence of hardball: the difference is whether the PM gets to try to present it as a win.

That’s where the critics reach for the additional piece of ammunition; if it’s not bluster to disguise a rubbish deal, it makes no deal more likely, either because the Brexiters are incompetent liars who promised something we were never going to get, or because their evil Macchiavellian plan was always to go for a WTO exit.

That these claims are contradictory doesn’t bother them. The important thing is that the Government should both lose, and be in the wrong. Which is fair enough. It is, however, very similar to the argument by Leavers that Remainers, by obstructing all terms of exit, were the prime culprits in rendering no deal Brexit more likely. It’s true, but why would you expect people to support something they are already determined to oppose?

The Internal Market Bill proposals are more serious than what can be dismissed as “tough talking”; whether it’s, as Labour puts it, “an immense act of bad faith” or, as the Government is insisting, a minor bit of legal housekeeping. Either way, it is an attempt to amend, clarify or wriggle out of – depending on your view – the WA.

The positive interpretations are that it strengthens the likelihood of EU concession, or something that can be presented as that, on fisheries policy and Northern Ireland’s continued adherence to EU rules (particularly on state aid) or makes it clear that – in the absence of concessions – the UK regards itself as absolved from the WA claims on its own internal market.

The negative interpretations are that it breaches international treaty obligations, paints the UK as a bad actor (thus scuppering any trade deals we might hope to strike) and that it wrecks the Anglo-Irish agreement. While the apocalyptic tone of those objections is overblown, they are eminently reasonable points. The weaselly response of some hardline ERG-types that no parliament can bind its successors loses a fair degree of its force, after all, when the WA was a central plank of the manifesto that won you the election.

Of all the claims that are being made, however, the most plausible of all is that the Government doesn’t have any idea whether it will conclude a deal or exit without one. But then that merely puts it in the same position as its critics, and for that matter the EU. It is in the nature of a negotiation that no one knows the outcome, or whether any of the “indivisible” positions can be separated, or the “red lines” redrawn.

The Government’s not knowing doesn’t mean that it’s clueless – though I’m perfectly happy to concede that as a possibility. In fact, we’d have stronger evidence to suggest that it was incompetent if it were not taking these positions, even if it can’t achieve the outcomes it prefers. I’m assuming that, while Mr Johnson may think he can live with an Australian-style deal, as he now likes to call WTO terms, he’d very much prefer an actual deal that offers less friction, and can be sold as a triumph.

The main driving force behind this week’s steps probably isn’t a settled plan by the UK Government, nor panic because there never was one. Nor should we blame any intransigence by the EU: trying to keep the UK within its rules – a stretch, as even its supporters should accept – is in keeping with its belief that it has a strong hand. No one would expect, on previous form, any concession until the last minute.

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Whether they ever will is anyone’s guess, and the PM is no more likely to guess right than anyone else. What is outwith everyone’s control, however, is the calendar. Whether an “oven-ready” deal remains a possibility or was always an illusion, the stove has to be brought up to temperature in time.

That’s what these moves are for. They don’t indicate that the Government has a genius recipe to satisfy the appetites of its supporters or the markets, nor proof that it has (yet) made a dog’s breakfast of the business. They’re a recognition that by October, every company and organisation will start digging out the alternative plans that the vast majority have already have drawn up. That simultaneously makes it easier to countenance no deal, and to maximise the likelihood of movement towards one. But on which side, and to whose benefit, is still a mystery.

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