Theresa May's Brexit bubble has been popped by the Irish border

'Getting a new car sounds very appealing, but not so much when you discover that you are trading in your garage of cars'

Michael Hugh Walker
Monday 04 December 2017 23:22
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Theresa May needs to move Brexit talks on in December
Theresa May needs to move Brexit talks on in December

T.S Eliot once wrote "Between the idea / And the reality... Falls the Shadow".

Nestled amongst those carefully crafted words is a reflection of our Brexit, which currently lurches deep in shadow.

Since last week, the Irish border seemed like the issue that would finally throw into sharp relief the schism between the Brexit dream still being clung to by Westminster and the realities of what is actually attainable. It was destined to be the pin primed to pop the Brexit bubble.

Today, that bubble did indeed burst.

The situation is this: the Irish Government, with EU backing, is refusing Phase 2 trade talks to be entered unless there's a guarantee of no hard, north-south border in Ireland. With the UK's unfathomable determination to leave the customs union, giving this guarantee would result in a hard border between NI and the rest of the UK. The DUP have made clear that if this happens, as suggested as late as this Monday afternoon, then the DUP would withdraw its support and May would no longer have a working majority. And on an issue of this gravity, and so close to their party’s very core, the DUP were not bluffing, and had no room to back down.

This is how serious the situation is - unless Westminster dramatically jettisons its commitment to leaving the customs union, they have a choice between no progress in EU trade talks, or May's Government falls through.

Awe-inspiringly, only as the EU talks crumbled around them did the insurmountable nature of the Irish border obstacle really appear to dawn on Westminster, such is the level of breath-taking amateurishness they’ve cocooned themselves with. They needed progress today – if the Brexit timeline was to be even remotely kept to. Without it going as planned, the UK cannot get the green light to trade talks at the EU leader’s summit at the end of next week. And without that – well – the ability to obtain a trade deal before the end of the Article 50 period begins to look seriously precarious.

It’s all pretty heavy stuff.

Simply, the only way to obey the Irish and EU demand of no hard border on the island of Ireland is for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU customs union. The only way for May to keep her majority in Parliament is to make sure Northern Ireland (NI) does not leave the EU on different terms than the rest of the UK. So therefore the only way to progress to EU trade talks, and not simultaneously collapse her Government, is for the entire UK to stay in the customs union. It is that simple, and there are no other options.

Not only does staying in the customs union end the Irish border blockade to talks progress, it makes complete sense. The only reason to leave it is to feed the odd obsession of building our own trade deals, but we never quite got our arms around how this new ability to create your own trade deals means you are no longer privy to any of the trade deals we currently enjoy.

Getting a new car sounds very appealing, but not so much when you discover that you are trading in your garage of cars for the ability to do so, and you'll need to build any cars that you want from scratch.

There will also no doubt be a great deal of outrage about the DUP’s part in pulling the plug on the anticipated progress today, and I know how much they’ve became national Bible Bashing Bogey men.

Corbyn himself has dragged his photoshopped self away from his jam pots to break his Brexit silence and blame the “grubby deal” with the DUP for the talk’s failure (the deal incidentally goes to our struggling Health and Education systems, but anyway).

But there are very good reasons why the DUP refused to accept what May’s team were ready to agree to this Monday afternoon.

If May got her way, before the DUP and dozens of Tory MPs intervened, Westminster would have introduced the most drastic change to the Northern Irish constitutional makeup for two decades, without a single NI voice being heard or sought.

Changes to rules around drinks containers have enjoyed wider consultation and democratic scrutiny than the redrawing of Northern Ireland’s economic reality almost went through. The very blueprint and integrity of the UK was almost bartered away behind closed Brussel’s doors; that’s really pretty bewildering. Not to mention the Pandora’s Box it would have sprung open, as London, Wales and Scotland would have all sought to enter the same deal – creating a random customs zig zag across the UK.

To my mind, the only way forward in this mess is a binding Parliamentary vote on whether we leave the customs union, and another vote on asking for a 3-4 month extension to the Article 50 deadline from the rest of the EU. It may put us behind slightly, but right now, we're not moving anywhere.

But the reality is Westminster have neither the bravery nor the political capital to be so bold and rescue the situation.

So in all honestly I have no idea where we go next, as seeing sense always appears to be the last avenue that the calamitous carry-on crew navigating our Brexit appear willing to take.

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