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SIMON WALTERS: Only Macron stands in the way of PM's triumph on Brexit deal and Covid vaccine

By Monday morning, Boris Johnson could have earned his place in history. 

Securing a Brexit trade deal in the blink of an eye, just days after Britain became the first country in the world to approve a Covid vaccine, would be an achievement to rival Sir Robert Walpole’s record of 20 years, 315 days in Number 10.

John Major, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May notched up 18 years in Downing Street between them without a single memorable moment of triumph.

Mr Johnson has two within reach – all before the first anniversary of his election landslide next Saturday.

French fishing boats would face a total ban on entering British waters – with the Royal Navy there to stop them if they tried

The arrival in the UK on Thursday of the first batch of coronavirus vaccines secured the first part of what could be a formidable legacy.

However, the second part – agreeing a trade deal with the EU – may prove more difficult than beating a global pandemic.

Last night, negotiations with Brussels were hanging in the balance.

Predictably, preening Emmanuel Macron threw a last-minute hand grenade into the negotiations bunker. 

He demanded that one of the key aspects settled months ago – that the UK will not use Brexit as an excuse to scrap existing EU-wide standards in industry, but does NOT need to obey any future changes by Brussels – is ripped up.

If Mr Johnson agreed to that, he might as well hand in his resignation as Prime Minister to the Queen straight away.

But for all his fears, Mr Johnson, reputedly the most hardline Brexiteer in the Cabinet, can take solace in the fact that he has actually proved a good poker player during his negotiations with the EU.

While Mrs May had every bluff called, he has refused to fold.

And it has worked. So far.

Predictably, preening Emmanuel Macron threw a last-minute hand grenade into the negotiations bunker. He demanded that one of the key aspects settled months ago – that the UK will not use Brexit as an excuse to scrap existing EU-wide standards in industry, but does NOT need to obey any future changes by Brussels – is ripped up

But in recent days EU leaders have started to use Mr Johnson’s own trump card against him, threatening to pull the plug on talks on the basis that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ for Brussels.

In truth, both sides know that such a scenario would be game over in every sense.

French fishing boats would face a total ban on entering British waters – with the Royal Navy there to stop them if they tried.

All the while an interminable queue of lorries waiting for the Channel Tunnel would stretch back from Folkestone to the M25 as pettifogging French customs officers checked their papers.

Of course, that isn’t to say that securing a Brexit deal wouldn’t come with its own pitfalls.

For if the Prime Minister does compromise – and it’s difficult to see how he won’t have to – it’s not only British trawlermen who will accuse him of betrayal.

It would also infuriate hardline Brexiteer Tory MPs in the European Research Group, who will refuse to vote for anything that involves major concessions.

Certainly, Mr Johnson would find himself in a remarkably different position to the one he occupied a year ago, when he won a seemingly unassailable Commons majority of 80.

But in recent weeks Tory MPs have gained a taste for rebellion that has shaken Downing Street. A total of 55 voted against the Prime Minister’s new Covid tiers this week. 

The same number – and possibly more – can be expected to do the same if he gives away too much in order to get a trade deal. I do not, however, believe the anonymous rumours doing the rounds in Westminster that he could soon face a leadership challenge.

But Johnson loyalist Andrew Bridgen says the political and personal stakes are high. The Tory MP for North West Leicestershire tells me: ‘Boris has given his all over the last five years and achieved remarkable results.

‘He won the EU referendum, became PM, won an election landslide, got Brexit done and had to deal with Covid.

‘If he gets an acceptable Brexit deal, or due to EU intransigence takes us out on World Trade Organisation terms, his place in history will be secure.

For if the Prime Minister does compromise – and it’s difficult to see how he won’t have to – it’s not only British trawlermen who will accuse him of betrayal. It would also infuriate hardline Brexiteer Tory MPs in the European Research Group, who will refuse to vote for anything that involves major concessions

‘The Conservative Party will then face a new political landscape.

‘As with Dominic Cummings, once the dragon is slayed it can be argued the dragon slayer is no longer needed.’

Mr Bridgen says social distancing in the Commons has made it hard for the Prime Minister to ‘bond’ with his backbenchers, particularly those who first entered Parliament last year.

‘Covid has changed the relationship between Conservative MPs, the party and its leader,’ he says. 

‘Some of the new intake do not circle Planet Boris. They are satellites in a much wider orbit.

‘No one has supported Boris Johnson more strongly than I have. But his misguided handling of the new tiers, and the fact that more than 50 of his MPs, including me, could not support him in the Commons, is a warning. It is a two-way relationship.’

And so Mr Johnson could be forgiven for looking to unlikely quarters for support if he secures a Brexit deal.

This week, he compared Britain’s latest vaccine achievement to the ‘cavalry coming over the hill’.

But if he gets a trade deal, and Tory rebels try to sabotage it, that ‘cavalry’ could take the form of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

Desperate to put Labour’s Brexit turmoil behind him, he has said that if it is a choice between the two, ‘a deal is obviously in the national interest’.

No doubt a grateful Mr Johnson, desperate to secure a legacy of any sort, would agree.

The arrival in the UK on Thursday of the first batch of coronavirus vaccines secured the first part of what could be a formidable legacy. However, the second part – agreeing a trade deal with the EU – may prove more difficult than beating a global pandemic [File photo]

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