The UK proposals on the border likely to underwhelm, as the Ref 2 debate hots up

Theresa May has had  the temporary excuse of being on holiday to explain away the continuing churn over Brexit inside and outside the government. No more. She returns from holiday this week. Little to comfort her awaits.  Rather than a produce a rallying cry the promised publication of several major Brexit policy documents by midweek is likely  to give both sides of the debate more ammunition to throw at each other.

By themselves they cannot constitute  a coherent strategy. But taken  together, will they  persuade the EU commission that enough is on offer from the British to allow the negotiations to move on to the crucial issues of trade, without  which no border solution and much else can be settled? This is surely the crucial point.

On the border, the Sunday Telegraph has received the traditional Sunday advance   

After Brexit EU nationals will be allowed to come on holiday in Ireland and not show passports to get into the UK. But they will not be allowed to work in the UK because they will not have a work permit.

The source said: “Irish citizens will fundamentally have better rights than other EU nationals.”

An estimated 20,000 people every year from the Irish Republic come to work on the British mainland.

The Irish border will be policed by “very advanced” CCTV cameras at border points such as automated number recognition systems which are commonly used by police in Britain.

The Government will also develop a trusted trader scheme which will allow goods to  be carried north and south from established firms.

If  the debate in Dublin in advance of the British proposals  is any guide, the response of the Irish political class to this will be very cool indeed. They will respond with a resounding chorus of “ big deal” on free movement and “ it won’t work” to technological solutions to the border problem.

But equally keenly awaited will be the response of the EU Commission. If the Commission receives the British proposals positively, the UK government will have taken its first effective initiative. The proposals on the border and the rest would be taken as work in progress and not the last word. Brussels’ and  Dublin’s responses would  be cautiously framed accordingly.   If not, where do we go from there?

Meanwhile, the debate on a second referendum has been hotting up.  Following on from May’s election disaster the political case was made earlier this week by the leading constitutional thinker, Vernon Bogdanor.    

The election re-opens the issue of Europe – for four reasons.

First, there is probably no Commons majority for May’s version of Brexit. Indeed, there is probably a stronger representation of remain MPs in parliament today than before the election.

Second, Labour’s electoral gains raise the question of whether the decision in the 2016 referendum is final: for, although Labour was not a remain party this year, the British Election Study found that the party’s “soft Brexit” policy played a large part in its substantial gain in votes. In constituencies where over 55% voted remain, the party achieved a swing of around 7%. The election was the revenge of the remainers.

Third, the election intensifies internal divisions in both major parties. If the eventual deal is too “hard”, Conservative remainers may join with their opposition counterparts to defeat it; if too “soft”, Tory Eurosceptics could ensure its rejection. There may be no majority for any of the forms of Brexit on offer, with the Commons deadlocked.

Fourth, the House of Lords – in which the pro-remain Liberal Democrats and crossbenchers hold the balance of power, and the proportion of remainers is probably even higher than in the Commons – will feel emboldened to reject a hard Brexit, arguing that a minority government has no mandate for it.

When he thought he was going to lose in 2016, Nigel Farage said that a further referendum would be needed: there is no doubt that Brexiteers would have continued their campaign to take Britain out of the EU and they would have had every democratic right to do so. But so equally do those who have doubts about the decision.

Brexit after all raises fundamental, indeed existential, issues for the future of the country. That is why the final deal needs the consent not only of parliament, but of a sovereign people.

Labour’s potential king over the water David Miliband entered the lists in the Observer.

Leaving the EU was mis-sold as a quick fix. Now it looks like a decade-long process of unscrambling the eggs of national and European legislation. Ministers cannot even agree among themselves the destination, the route map or the vehicles to get us there.

I never thought I would say this, but the chancellor, Philip Hammond, is also playing a valiant role. The transition he supports is vital. However, a transition postpones a rupture rather than avoiding it. Slow Brexit does not mean soft Brexit. Steve Baker, minister in the department leading the negotiations, has been refreshingly honest in saying the transition period is a “soft landing for a hard Brexit”. We have been warned

The case against the EU depends on avoiding a discussion of the alternative. IT is the equivalent of voting to repeal Obamacare without knowing the replacement. It is a stitch-up. That is one reason it is essential that parliament or the public are given the chance to have a straight vote between EU membership and the negotiated alternative. That is a democratic demand, not just a prudent one.

People say we must respect the referendum. We should. But democracy did not end on 23 June 2016. The referendum will be no excuse if the country is driven off a cliff. MPs are there to exercise judgment. Delegating to Theresa May and David Davis, never mind Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, the settlement of a workable alternative to EU membership is a delusion, not just an abdication.

Brexit is an unparalleled act of economic self-harm. But it was a big mistake to reduce the referendum to this question. The EU represents a vision of society and politics, not just economics. We need to fight on this ground too.

But “valiant” Philip Hammond is reported to have reached agreement with the arch-Leaver Liam Fox on what a transition would mean.

The ministers – representing the Remain and Leave wings of the Tory party –  say this will be “time limited” and designed to avoid a “cliff edge” that could damage British business.

Although they do not say how long this period will last, it will not represent an attempt to stay in the EU indefinitely, they say.

Whether this alleged  compact  is more than cosmetic and temporary  remains to be seen. Hammond seems to be saying, “sure, of course we’ll quit the single market and the customs union” while bidding to replace it with third nation or bilateral arrangements which amount to pretty much the practical status quo. Fox’s language  envisages far greater freedom and opportunity to cut deals with the wider world.

As Theresa May returns from holiday this week, we can expect she’ll try to put her own stamp of authority on the publication of the Brexit papers to quell unrest in the cabinet and party. And her chances of success, according to the Mail on Sunday?

Theresa May will try to head off a threat to sack her as Prime Minister by making a public plea to Tory supporters to give her another chance.

She will make a grovelling apology at the Conservative Party Conference for the loss of the Government’s majority at the General Election.

News of Mrs May’s ‘mea culpa’ speech – live on TV in a Sunday confessional at the start of the rally in Manchester on October 1, and three days before her main speech – came as the Tories were rocked by more divisions.

It emerged last night that:

  • Former Minister and pro-EU Conservative MP Anna Soubry warned she could quit the party if Mrs May pursued a ‘hard Brexit’ stance;
  • Pro-Brexit MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has reportedly let slip his own secret plan to succeed Mrs May; ( he denied it, sort of, this morning)
  • Chancellor Philip Hammond and Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson are said to be poised to back a leadership bid by fellow ‘soft Brexit’ supporter Home Secretary Amber Rudd.



Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London