It’s the solemn duty of all professional commentators always to be interesting, even at the expense of consistency with writers in their own paper or even with themselves. And this is a terrific time for fascinating chaos and confusion. Where official “lines to take” are not banal they are tangled up and inconsistent, reflecting the fact that over Brexit, a chronically divided cabinet are singing like birds. Tension is ramped up before yet another deadline to be missed whether it’s next Tuesday’s cabinet meeting or next month’s EU summit.
Take my tip and follow Theresa. She’s stalling to October – or maybe another three years. It is craftiness born of weakness but is there a better bet?
What are readers to make of panic stations in the Irish Times and divided counsel on the DUP, all of it entirely plausible?
We have Alex Kane in the Irish Times, now the voice of acceptable unionism everywhere, not quite matching his headline, not quite easy to follow, but quite definite on the DUP. ( It would have helped his cause though if he’d named his quarry “Jacob” correctly rather than his Dad, the late Times editor “William” Rees Mogg.)
Theresa May’s reliance on the DUP means her hands are tied on resolving the current political impasse in Northern Ireland and reaching a UK/EU solution to the Border crisis. Ironically, the danger to her government doesn’t come from the Irish: it comes from the DUP and the squabbles within her own party. The union faces an existential challenge and some of May’s problems stem from her relationship with and reliance on the DUP.
I think Alex overstates that last point. Newton Emerson, a more eccentric interpreter of unionism says – rightly in my view in the following first paragraph:
The past two weeks have made it clear the DUP is not hoping to sabotage Irish unity through Brexit. However, this is not as accepted as it ought to be, even as the party runs scared of a sea border. Conspiracy theories attract diehard fans, this one flatters traditional suspicions about unionists and the British government, and investigations into Brexit campaign funding keep adding fuel to the paranoid fire.
The result could be the worst of all worlds for Northern Ireland politics, in which the DUP backs a soft Brexit and perhaps even plays a small part in delivering it, but where it never gets the credit because of its pride and nationalism’s mistrust. A chance for rapprochement will be squandered and Brexit will remain hugely divisive despite being technically resolved.
In the second para it’s Newton’s turn to go too far. Looking on the brighter side which I know is unfashionable, I believe a just in time outcome for Brexit is perfectly achievable and if the DUP stick with Theresa through the political storm and steer clear of the hard Brexiteers, they will come out modestly ahead and compliant. If they think about it, they have no alternative.
At that point in the early transition the two governments will come together to address their divisions over the GFA and begin to exert pressure on the NI parties to return to the Assembly, to include a considerable role in managing the Brexit outcome. On the North the eventual general election campaign in the Republic looks like fixing on too little intervention in the Stormont stand off rather than too little, especially in failing to put more pressure on Sinn Fein.
At Westminster, only with a crash-out and a major split in the Conservative party with maybe 20 implacably opposed to the eventual government line might the DUP’s ten seats come into play. May’s whole strategy of holding on for as big a consensus as possible around a smart Brexit looks chaotic but credible. If it fails, she will accept a compromise verdict from a majority in parliament as a whole. No one including the DUP wants a general election. It would be difficult to arrange an election anyway because of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act under which the current term runs to 2022. It is very hard to imagine 15 to 17 Brexiteers rebels siding with increasingly soft Brexit Labour in an explicit vote of confidence.The DUP would self harm if they deserted her if she was backed by a Commons majority and they went instead with a few hard Brexit diehards. They would never be forgiven or trusted again. This really is not 1912 to 1914.
On the EU big picture Noel Whelan argues Bring the Brexit crisis to a Head now!. Better than endless fudge to October and beyond.
The nightmare outcome of course is that Britain crashes out of the European Union next March without any transition period and without any agreement in place for trade between Britain and the EU.
Given the contorted state of British cabinet politics and the delusions which persist among many British commentators and voters about what can be achieved in Brexit, a collapse in the talks now rather than in October would be the lesser of two evils. It is to be preferred over engaging in more diplomatic fudge which merely postpones that breakdown to October.
Whelan is being too interesting here. Varadkar has already indicated he won’t force a crisis in June in line with EU habits. And anyway as the D Telegraph reports leading cabinet Brexiteer ( or is he?) Michael Gove believes the Commission is heading in the opposite direction and they will take longer than next month to arrive.
Michael Gove is concerned the EU will use the Northern Ireland border issue to “hold us hostage” and keep the UK in the Single Market and Customs Union.
The Environment Secretary raised concerns at a private dinner of Tory Eurosceptics that Britain may be unable to secure a customs deal with Brussels before it leaves the EU in March 2019.
He believes that the EU’s Irish border “backstop” could be used as a “Trojan Horse” during negotiations in the 21-month transition period after Brexit to keep Britain in the Customs Union indefinitely.
A source told The Telegraph that Mr Gove is concerned that if Britain accepts the backstop option “we won’t have all the negotiating cards that we would want to have in that transition period”.
The FT reports most definitively what ‘s really going on.
Theresa May postponed key Brexit legislation while allies on Thursday played down the prospect of any imminent agreement over future customs policy, deepening the paralysis over Britain’s strategy on leaving the EU. The prime minister’s allies believe there is unlikely to be a breakthrough over customs arrangements and the Irish border at next Tuesday’s meeting of the inner Brexit committee, even though she wants the issues settled before next month’s EU summit. Meanwhile, senior Tories admitted they did not dare bring back two key Brexit bills to the House of Commons — on trade and customs — until the autumn because of fears Mrs May could be defeated.
Mrs May’s officials are trying to find a way through the impasse, which has immobilised the government. “It’s looking sticky,” said one. To try to resolve the deadlock on Brexit, the prime minister has set up two working groups looking at possible improvements to the government’s two customs options. Liam Fox, trade secretary, and Michael Gove, environment secretary, will study Mrs May’s hybrid customs partnership — which they oppose — along with David Lidington, Cabinet Office minister, who backs it. Greg Clark, business secretary, and Karen Bradley, Northern Ireland secretary, will study the “maximum facilitation” plan for streamlined borders — which they oppose — along with David Davis, Brexit secretary, who supports it. The aim is for the cabinet’s rival camps to resolve their differences but no breakthrough is expected before next Tuesday’s Brexit committee. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson and chancellor Philip Hammond, who are seen as divisive figures in the debate, are not on either working group. Officials are exasperated by the lack of progress on the customs and trade bills, which have been frozen for months and are not now expected to return to the Commons until the autumn.
So it’s the autumn folks. At the earliest. All this intrigue and frustration is the storm before the final compromise on the transition which will provide the key to the eventual deal.
Brexit is too big to fail.
ADDS from the Daily Telegraph’s Brexit Briefing ( but note that May is still believed to prefer the hybrid customs partnership model )
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