To be fair, Boris Johnson did try to temper expectations ahead of informal Brexit meetings in New York during the UN General Assembly session, but perhaps not enough. Johnson told the media that he didn’t want to “elevate excessively the belief there will be a New York breakthrough,” but a leaked memo from the EU suggests that the British PM is still stuck in the spitballing stage. According to the EU analysis revealed by Sky News, the “ideas” finally committed to paper by Johnson fall far short of avoiding the need for the Irish backstop — or of even offering “legally operable” ideas at all:

Yesterday, in a UK exclusive interview with Sky’s Sophy Ridge, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker confirmed he had been sent documents by Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlining the ideas for a new deal.

However, the memo obtained by Sky News tonight said the proposals did not provide “legally operational solutions” to the controversial backstop.

It added that the draft failed to:

  • Avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland
  • Protect the all-island economy and north-south co-operation
  • Preserve the integrity of the single market and Ireland’s place in it

The UK government has made clear the documents sent to the EU this week are not formal indications of its position, but rather ideas for discussion.

Other than that, though, it’s just ducky. After three years of preparation and a six-month extension, Johnson’s team still hasn’t crafted an alternative to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. With a crash-out less than six weeks out and Johnson himself acknowledging that the UK has to provide a workable alternative, one has to wonder what Johnson expects to discuss in New York, other than the weather.

The EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit essentially corroborated Sky News’ account, telling the media today that Johnson hasn’t offered anything new at all. The tone of the discussions may have improved, but substantially speaking the two sides are at the same impasse, Michel Barnier said:

Hopes of a deal to ease the transition were stoked when Johnson said the shape of an accord was emerging and European Commission President Juncker said an agreement was possible.

But EU negotiator Michel Barnier cast doubt on the likelihood of a deal and reaffirmed that the bloc could not agree to London’s demand to remove the Irish “backstop”, a policy to prevent a return of border controls on the island of Ireland – without a serious alternative. …

EU sources said no proper alternative for the border between Northern Ireland, a British province, and Ireland that ensures the integrity of the EU single market and customs union has been proposed yet by London, so no breakthrough is on the cards.

In a quip about British talk of virtual checks on the border, Barnier said: “I don’t know how to inspect a cow with virtual methods.”

“Based on current UK thinking, it is difficult to see how we can arrive at a legally operative solution which fulfils all the objectives of the backstop. It is in a very sensitive and difficult phase,” he said.

Johnson’s point man on Brexit reiterated that they will not sign any agreement with the backstop, while not actually offering any formal proposals to moot it:

Britain’s Brexit minister Stephen Barclay reiterated a vow to reach a deal for Britain to leave the European Union without the so-called Irish backstop, saying his government needs an agreement parliament would pass.

Barclay also said his country was committed to leaving with a deal because doing so without one would be disruptive. …

Barclay said it was possible that different arrangements could be put in place.

“The teams are meeting again this week because both sides recognize that is in both interests to secure a deal. So that is what we are working on but it has to be a deal without the backstop,” Barclay said in Prague, after meeting the country’s interior minister, Jan Hamacek.

Also in New York is Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who said the UK will be to blame for a hard border in Ireland in the event of a crash-out. Varadkar also warned the UK that Ireland would not fold on the backstop and the Good Friday Agreement, even if British diplomats have been telling EU counterparts that Dublin would retreat:

When asked about reports that British diplomats had been briefing that Ireland would falter on their position on the backstop the closer negotiations came to October 31, the date set for the UK to leave the EU, Mr Varadkar said he did not know if that was true.

“There is one thing I do know about Brexit from the last two or three years, is that there are some people in Britain, perhaps not in government, but some people who took the view that France and Germany and the bigger countries would gang up on Ireland, and that’s never happened.

“There are also some people that believe at the last minute that Ireland will somehow fold or give up our position, and that’s not going to happen,” he said.

Right now it looks like no one’s going to swerve in this game of chicken, which probably suits Johnson fine — at the moment. A crash-out will create the need for a hard border, which Johnson can then use as leverage in future negotiations. However, it will generate a tremendous amount of ill will with the EU, the Republic of Ireland, and perhaps most importantly Northern Ireland, which voted for Remain in 2016. A hard border will accelerate calls for reunification and could force a referendum under the Good Friday Agreement, especially with Stormont still in mothballs thanks to the existing pre-Brexit political standoff in the enclave.

One has to wonder whether recent rumors that Johnson would consider a Northern Ireland-only backstop have some basis in fact. It might have been more of an option had Johnson gotten his election this month; a clear Tory majority would have allowed Johnson to dump DUP and set the customs border in the Irish Sea. Those rumors receded about the same time that prospects for the snap election came to an end, which makes it seem as though it might have been among the “ideas” being spitballed by Conservative leaders of late. Leaving Northern Ireland in the EU customs zone was proposed by the EU early on as a solution to the Gordian knot of a border problem that Brexit will create, but the DUP put a quick end to the idea. A Tory majority without the DUP might have gotten that idea a second look. We’ll never know, alas.

If Johnson really wants to avoid a crash-out, he’d better come up with something other than ambiguous ideas, and fast. But that’s the real question, isn’t it?