Even if Theresa wins cabinet support for her ” all-UK customs arrangement”, time is running out to knock it into shape for the negotiations

In a nutshell, this is   the first problem Theresa May will confront from up to a dozen cabinet ministers this morning.

 “We must have control of the backstop. If Theresa doesn’t stare down the EU and win a mechanism that does this, the whole argument is immaterial as there is zero chance of passing the Commons. 

The Taoiseach indicated an openness to consider proposals for “a review mechanism”, provided that it was clear that the outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop.

Then the Sun reports the chief whip’s maths. He tells her around 40 Tory backbenchers plus the DUP are prepared to torpedo any deal which keeps the whole UK in the customs union until  the backstop can be replaced – which they fear means forever. With only 15 Labour MPs prepared to defy their own party whip and support  the proposed ” future economic partnership”, the maths alone spell defeat for Mrs May.

When it comes to it of course, the facts on the ground may change, such as what the  “review  mechanism” might produce.  Somehow though, this piece of Micawberism doesn’t rise to the challenge of events.

The FT reports the cabinet struggle from the other end of the telescope .

The prime minister is expected to warn her cabinet that time is running out to agree a deal and that the government will soon have to tell businesses to start spending money on planning for a disorderly no-deal exit. She is set to tell her pro-Brexit ministers they will have to cede ground to get a deal, after Mr Varadkar said the UK would not be allowed to unilaterally walk away from a backstop deal to avoid a hard border in Ireland. Mrs May’s aides admitted that hopes of a Brexit breakthrough by mid-November had faded. They said Britain was aiming for a special European Council meeting before the end of the month to sign off the country’s exit terms. “She’s going to try to roll the cabinet,” said one Eurosceptic Conservative official.    .

But even if she does “ roll  the cabinet,”  May runs into her second  problem – shaping an improvised idea for a “ all UK temporary customs arrangement”  into a detailed proposal  to place in negotiation. And time is running out, reports RTE’s Tony Connelly in several tweets.

The big question is whether or not the UK insists on a time-limit or a “termination clause” for the UK-wide customs backstop. Essentially, the more London insists on a termination clause, the stronger the need for the NI-specific backstop to remain, according to one source.

A senior EU official tells @rtenews tonight there will be “no breakthrough” on the backstop this week. This is not just because the UK cabinet is divided over whether there should be a NI-specific backstop as a final safety net, or because of the termination clause, but because the UK-wide customs arrangement brings with it a whole spectrum of small print, on “level playing field” issues, such as competition rules, state aid, social, environmental, health & safety rules that member states will want assurances on before they sign up to it.

“This bare bones EU-UK customs agreement,” says the senior official, “defining it in terms of a single customs territory, all that has yet to be drawn up. The EU is looking for the details of that proposal, of what that means, and they’re waiting for Olly Robbins to tell them.

The view in Brussels is that in seeking the “temporary customs arrangement (TCA), the UK hadn’t bargained for the conditions that would be attached, and Theresa May will find it difficult, if not impossible, to get that through the cabinet tomorrow.

Perhaps Olly Robbins will produce the rabbits out of his hat.

Ronan McCrea the Irishman who’s a professor of constitutional and European law at UCL  has an interesting piece in the FT about  the clash of  perspectives underlying the  backstop. Once again, Britain and Ireland are talking past each other.      

The reaction on both sides underlined how little insight people in Ireland and the UK have into each other’s attitudes. For many Brexiters the Irish government’s approach has been seen as almost disloyal, driven by a nationalist, Sinn Féin-like desire to “stick it to the Brits”. Remainers, for their part, have tended to view Ireland through an equally UK-centric lens, with a recent article speaking of Ireland as “the adult in this dysfunctional family”. For most Irish people, the purpose of independence — and later an attraction of EU membership — was as a means to get away from a deeply unhappy experience of the UK “family”. This can explain to some degree Irish reactions to seemingly warm gestures, such as British people cheering on the Irish football team. Through Irish eyes, that is a bit like a woman running the marathon noticing her ex-husband cheering for her in the crowd. The support is, in theory, nice, but the implicit assertion of a continuing bond is unwelcome.

(That sounds as if Britain can’t win. Is he right about that? I’d say  Irish people have always  given a hearty welcome to British support in sport and cultural matters where they’re not competing directly – and sometimes when they are. Let’s hear it for Sonia O’Sullivan, Padraig Harrington etc etc ).

Mrs May is boxed in by her foolish laying down of red lines. But the Republic is similarly stuck. By citing the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish government succeeded in getting its EU allies to insist that the talks cannot proceed without concrete guarantees that there will be no hardening of the border. It is very difficult for it now to back down and tell its allies that some minimal border infrastructure may be acceptable in order to protect east-west trade and to avoid a crash Brexit.

Isn’t disentangling the crossed lines the perfect job for the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement?

 

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