As I was saying recently, the backstop is a well-kicked can that’s running out of road. It never had the legs to take it across the line if the UK were to leave the customs union; we knew it all along and, Mad-Hatter like, chose not to see it. But allowing the issue to languish under the general rubric of ‘something will turn up, Mrs Micawber’ has led us to a potentially explosive impasse.
That we would get to this point was always clear for those who cared to look. Northern Ireland, if it isn’t to become the easiest smuggling route in the world, has to close one of its borders in the event of the UK leaving the customs union and single market. A closed border down the Irish Sea would interrupt east-west trade and relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and the DUP is having none of it. A border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland would disrupt north-south trade on the island but will be needed to regulate EU-UK trade in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It would also present a very real threat to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the EU 27 (that’s us) are having none of it.
Foster and the DUP have a point; from their perspective, splitting Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and aligning it with the Republic on any level, raises old spectres—including the possibility of losing their beloved Union and becoming a minority grouping in a country they regard as foreign. Regulatory alignment may not be a decisive step, but it is a step toward further normalising the absence of a border. And the DUP appears to be willing to sacrifice everything to avoid being caught in closer alignment with Europe than with the UK. That includes, it seems, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the peace and prosperity that followed it. There is, however, the faint possibility of wiggle room, but I’m not sure May is the one to negotiate it.
From another perspective, those spectres, once raised, call up echoes of other spectres: in Northern Ireland, history is never far away. The rhetoric is already heating up on both sides of the border and this week we’ve had a reminder of what it was like to live through the ‘troubles’: a car bomb exploded over the weekend in Derry and on Monday there were three more security alerts, including a controlled explosion. Thankfully, nobody was hurt in any of those incidents.
The final irony is that it’s not clear that a majority down here would be willing to take on the North, particularly when it comes with a bill for about €11 billion per annum to replace the current British subsidy. Madly—or perhaps logically in this through-the-looking-glass world—the simplest solution might very well be a border poll to reassure the DUP.
Theresa May certainly isn’t the leader the UK needed at this point in history. Her basic lack of leadership skills, her confusion of obstinacy with commitment, and her prioritising of party politics over national interests, all contributed to the current chaos. Last year I suggested that nobody could have been more surprised than May to find herself, having campaigned to remain in the EU, leading the negotiations to leave. May’s career Plan A had been to get her feet under the table at number 10, remain in the EU, and finish Thatcher’s master plan by renaming ‘austerity’ ‘recovery’ and continuing with the policies that brought hard times for the bottom half of the population, massive bonuses for the top ten percent, and even more massive bonuses for the top 1%—the traditional Tory wet dream.
Plan B was to wing it.
Facing into what is potentially the greatest crisis to impact these islands since World War 2, May has been flying blind. And it shows: she is clearly out of her depth in negotiations when faced with twenty-seven EU members negotiating as one. She is even more clearly out of her depth in her attempts to deal with her own party, speaking back to her in multiple tongues from the smithereens of what used to be a comfortable British neo-liberal conservatism.
Partly because of her hostility toward Jeremy Corbyn, and partly because of her fear of the Johnson/Rees-Mogg contingent, May quickly forgot why she had campaigned—however unenthusiastically—to remain in the EU and took a hard turn right in an attempt to mollify the lunatic fringe. Brexit was to mean Brexit—although at that stage she didn’t know, any more than the rest of us did, what ‘Brexit’ might actually mean outside of that tautology. None of the hard Brexiteers believed she would deliver their dream, and, just in case, undermined her at every turn. The soft Brexiteers and the Remainers in her party resented her pandering to the Brextremists and tried their best to block her whenever and wherever they could. The ultra Brexiteers—including but not necessarily limited to Jacob Rees-Mogg and his completely insane European Research Group (ERG), and, of course, Boris Johnson and his complete insanity—think no deal is better than anything May is likely to negotiate. And they will jump off a cliff to prove it. Of course, the most enthusiastic of the would-be cliff divers bring with them the recommended prophylactic against the pain of a no-deal Brexit—independent wealth. In a world divided between the obscenely wealthy and everybody else, those who will bear the pain of a cliff dive don’t count for much.
Meanwhile, Corbyn’s Labour party stands by gleefully watching the Tories shred their party while May dangles on the slender thread of DUP support that turned out to be no support at all. Her determination to dither her way across the finish line perfectly matches his desire to watch her dangle all the way to a general election.
All she has left is the threat of ‘no deal’; she’s hoping it’ll scare the bejasus out of the wobblers on both sides of the aisle and allow her to cobble together a majority.
That’s the corner into which she has painted herself. It’s also the reason she still has a job: nobody else would take it.
From Brexit to farce
The journey from Brexit to farce was a short one. It ended less than a year after the referendum that started it when May completely misread the mind of the electorate and called an election to increase her majority and strengthen her hand in negotiations. As it turned out, in the hung parliament that resulted she only just managed to retain her grip on the poisoned chalice of power by calling on the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for support. Flying blind as she was, she apparently thought this would help with the trouble she was having with the fractures between the various strands of twenty-first-century Conservatism and at least one nineteenth-century throwback yearning for a return to the glory days of Empire. The madness of her strategy became clear in December that year when, at the first opportunity, ‘the DUP tail very publicly wagged the UK dog: Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, peremptorily called May out of the almost-concluded Brexit negotiations and sent her back in to scupper the almost-agreement on border issues’ (leftbucket here). The stop-gap backstop was born and May’s chances of finding a way through the mess shrunk to the size of a full stop.
After the humiliation of her historic defeat last week, May’s spectacular inability to understand the art of negotiation came to the fore; in an alleged attempt to reach cross-party consensus, she offered to talk with opposing parliamentarians about the fall of Plan A and the rise of Plan B but refused to budge on any of her red lines. In effect, she appeared to believe that she could bully her opposition into compliance with the threat of a no deal exit, once again totally misreading the situation. In this, she mirrors her on-again-off-again friend in Trump, who once hired a man to write his autobiographical fairy tale in The Art of the Deal but forgot to ask him how it was done.
Her last, desperate attempt at strategy is apparently to let the clock run out and offer a last-minute Hobson’s choice between her deal or no deal. This plan was apparently scuppered by a Commons’ vote on January 9 dictating that the Government must offer a Brexit Plan B within three days of the expected defeat of Plan A. In effect, the result was to help May get her toe to the can once again, with three days to come up with a Brexit Plan B, and thereby to defer any ‘meaningful’ vote. To nobody’s surprise, Plan B, when she unveiled it, looked very like Plan A, and it wasn’t any more popular the second time around.
There is no Brexit Plan B, because, in real terms, there was never a Brexit Plan A.
The ‘Plan B’ motion will be debated in Parliament on January 29, with a vote to follow, though there’s no reason to think it will be any more successful than its predecessor. That gives her six days to come up with another delaying tactic while faced with a parliamentary revolt in which the Commons is trying to wrest control from the Prime Minister.
Two proposed amendments planned for next week threaten a constitutional crisis: Nick Boles and Yvette Cooper’s Article 50 amendment would require the Government to request an extension to Article 50 if May cannot get her deal ratified by the end of February. Dominic Grieve’s amendment will call for a second referendum. If successful, either or both amendments would force a constitutional crisis as the Commons demands changes to which the Government is opposed. If they succeed, May could allow herself to be persuaded and agree to a delayed Article 50 or a second referendum. The single quality that she has shown in negotiating, however, is a determination to stick to her guns—even when they’re all pointed at her own head. If both amendments fail, which is likely, we’re back to deadlock.
Jeremy Corbyn is expected to table a Labour amendment and may or may not announce a draft bill for Labour’s alternative Brexit plan. Corbyn has been Eurosceptic since before the term was coined; at a guess, his plan would include leaving the ‘rich boys’ club’, as he calls the EU, but staying within the customs union and probably the single market. Expect a vote along party lines. Perhaps some uncobbled wobblers will cross the aisle; a win for Corbyn here will probably force an election. If it doesn’t, we’re back to deadlock.
Tory MP Caroline Spelman and Labour MP Jack Dromey will table an amendment rejecting a no deal outcome. It will embarrass the Government—they have to be used to that by now—but will have no legal force. Still deadlock.
If none of those amendments is approved, May retains control, but with her choices severely limited. She can attempt to open serious cross-party negotiations and come up with a new Brexit deal that she can present to the EU. Given the chaotic cross-party fighting, in-party fighting on both sides, and May’s lack of political war-craft skills, that plan would have little hope of success. It might nevertheless be worth trying. Or she can attempt to negotiate concessions from the EU to bring the DUP and Tory backbenchers on board. The EU negotiators have let it be known that, should May soften some of her red lines, there may be room for manoeuvre. Otherwise, the withdrawal agreement that took over two years to finalise is not up for renegotiation, particularly when it comes to the backstop. At which point, May, having already rejected an extension to Article 50 and a second referendum, might just fall into her own trap and find herself left with no choice but no deal. That could trigger a no-confidence vote in the Government that would have a reasonable chance of success and bring about a general election.
And, depending on who or what caused the election to be called, or what’s buzzing on social media, or whether there’s an ‘r’ in the month or a ‘y’ in the day, Jeremy Corbyn, despite opposition from both within and without his own party and a generally hostile press, might find himself in the seat once occupied by Margaret Thatcher—a slightly dishevelled exclamation point to mark the end of Thatcherite policies. One can only hope and dream.
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