TODAY the EU’s leaders will finally take a serious look at the rickety state of the Brexit talks at their summit in Brussels. But don’t expect a cliff-hanger with late-night calls to Boris Johnson to strike a deal. The summit agenda will focus on Brexit this afternoon before moving on, over dinner, to the existential issue of climate change.

Time is, though, running out to get to a basic free trade deal, rather than a no deal outcome. Mr Johnson has threatened the UK will walk away if there’s not a deal today but this was swatted away by Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator.

So what are Mr Johnson and his coterie of advisers up to here: is this just incompetence and ideology or is there any method in the madness? Certainly, the shambolic state of the talks, with little progress since April, has made it hard for government, individuals, business and other organisations to prepare for leaving the EU’s single market and customs union on January 1.

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Ideology and overblown, not to say dishonest, rhetoric has always been central to Brexiter arguments. And with multiple lorry parks being built across the UK and the new “smart” Kent border (lorries should only cross it with the right digital paperwork), incompetence is plainly visible. There has also been much bluster from the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, about not bending to Brussels’s will any more on state aid, fish quotas or dispute settlement – three of the big unresolved issues still.

But dig a little, and there is some wider political and rhetorical rationale to Mr Johnson’s approach; and it also provides cover for the UK Government’s increasing attack on Scottish devolution.

Underneath much of the UK’s bizarre – often stalling, sometimes threatening – negotiating tactics lies the long-running split in the Brexit camp between staying closer to the EU or moving forward as a freedom-loving, fully sovereign global Britain. With Me Johnson in power, the “freedom-loving” camp decisively won.

And so Mr Johnson dropped Theresa May’s deal with the EU on Northern Ireland, and agreed a new protocol that puts a border in the Irish Sea. For a UK Government now ratcheting up its rhetoric on being back in Scotland (“get used to it” tweeted MP Andrew Bowie this week), fragmenting the Union with a sea border to Northern Ireland has always looked like a strange move.

But it was a vital move for Mr Johnson to demonstrate to the extreme Brexiters – both in his Cabinet, on the back benches and amongst the wider public – that the UK was fully freeing itself from Brussels’ rule. In contrast, Theresa May’s Northern Ireland deal would have kept the UK indefinitely in the EU’s customs union. To agree that with Brussels, she rather comprehensively signed up to EU state aid rules.

More broadly, despite Mrs May’s rhetorical red lines, the more apparent the damage from hard borders and diverging regulations became, the more a semi-soft Brexit by stealth became attractive. But 2019’s chaotic politics at Westminster, with Tory backbenchers eventually defenestrating her for Mr Johnson, meant an end to that “not so bad Brexit” (as one former UK diplomat labelled it).

In Brussels, in January, despite Mr Johnson becoming Prime Minister, some officials thought they could repeat the same trick twice and get the UK to effectively sign up to staying part of EU state aid rules. But Mr Frost has strongly resisted this since April. The UK is now offering some midway compromise on UK state aid policy which Brussels is making grudgingly positive noises around. And it’s possible, if difficult, to imagine a grand deal around the level playing field conditions, fish and dispute settlement.

Mr Johnson, of course, also put another big roadblock in the way with his Internal Market Bill, which includes clauses that would over-rule the agreed EU-UK withdrawal agreement and break international law in the process. Any final EU-UK deal won’t be signed until these clauses have gone from the bill. But again there is some political method in Mr Johnson’s madness.

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He is playing to his public and backbenchers’ gallery with the Internal Market Bill – what his former political advisor, Lynton Crosby, last month called injecting a “bit of crazy” into the talks. Mr Johnson will doubtless claim great credit for his negotiating style, if a basic free trade deal is finally agreed. And he will continue to insist, wrongly, that there is no sea border.

Mr Johnson agreed to an Irish Sea border in his deal with Brussels last year. Even with a trade deal that removes tariffs from EU-UK trade, there will be customs and regulatory checks on Britain-Northern Ireland trade. But his border claims being untrue will not worry a Downing Street that is long on perma-campaigning and short on facts.

There is also a big side benefit for Mr Johnson, in the row over his Government’s willingness to break international law. It has distracted media attention, at least in London, from the deliberate, deep damage the Internal Market Bill does to the devolution settlement. What price the UK’s international reputation and trustworthiness if you can pretend a great negotiating coup and dramatically push forward your aggressive tactics towards Scotland?

There is a major cost here, aside from its political impact in Scotland. The EU, noting Mr Johnson’s willingness to break international law, are insisting on much tougher governance and dispute-settlement rules in any final free trade deal. For the UK, this is a negotiating fail. But Mr Johnson may not lose much sleep over it.

Even with a deal, there are going to be tough, damaging economic and wider consequences from Brexit for Scotland and the rest of the UK, and a much harder UK-EU border (with knock-on implications for arguments around independence).

But if Mr Johnson can claim the UK is free from EU rules, that any future barriers, economic damage or disruption are the EU’s fault, and that there’s no border in the Irish Sea, then Brexiter ideology will be satisfied. And the UK can step out into the brave, rather chilly new world of global Britain.

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