With the cabinet splitting every which way in all directions, Theresa May comes into her own as the ace stonewaller to every burning hypothetical question.
As the fateful moment of signing the withdrawal agreement arrived in Brussels this morning, the prime minister was still insisting to the massed ranks of sceptics back home: “This isn’t about me. It’s not the case that there is another negotiation to be done. This is the deal that’s been agreed, it’s the only deal that’s on the table.”
The Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph report cabinet members plotting very different Plan Bs – Norway ( soft) versus Canada (hard), while Mrs May holds the ring for the “only possible deal” just signed in Brussels. EU resolve is clear but it doesn’t quite mean what the bald headlines suggest. With expectations running at rock bottom that the withdrawal agreement will pass the Commons, the EU have already said they’d be willing to extend the transition period to settle a final deal. Months ago indeed they offered the suggestion of Norway but the UK turned it down. The opportunity for change therefore lies not in trying to revise the withdrawal agreement, but in choosing a different model for the long term relationship. Brexit will be with us for a long time to come. While it’s a helluva gamble, this must be Mrs May’s best argument against sinking the agreement signed by EU 27 today.
Senior ministers are in private discussions with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to draw up an alternative Brexit blueprint in the event that her deal is voted down by parliament. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, spoke at a DUP dinner on Friday. “Hammond is taking his chequebook,” one source said.
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted that the Government could fall in the highly likely event that the deal is rejected by the House of Commons. “It’s not possible to rule out anything. We have to work out what is in the national interest. We have to work out the risks,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr.
If the vote is lost, the five Brexiteers left in the cabinet, plus Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid, are expected to urge May to seek a Canada-style free-trade deal or a managed no-deal Brexit.
The Telegraph understands that the Cabinet and EU diplomats are drawing up a secret Plan B amid fears that the deal will be rejected in parliament.
This would involve the UK adopting a Norway-style relationship with Brussels where the country remains in the single market and follows EU rules, such as free movement, as well as joining a customs union.
One senior Tory said: “If she said she’d go for mitigated no deal, she would lose most of her cabinet. And this time she wouldn’t be losing Esther McVey and Dominic Raab, she’d be losing her most senior ministers. Hammond, Rudd, Lidington, Gauke and Clark would all resign
The prime minister took the extraordinary step of categorically denying that she was planning to offer Jeremy Corbyn a deal: Labour support in the “meaningful vote” in the Commons in exchange for a general election, which the Labour leader craves.
The Guardian’s Politics Live recounts May’s stonewalling when asked about all the above difficult questions.
We’ve heard some politically stonewalling closer home. The DUP are refusing to admit that their political deal with Conservatives is dead and are keen to exploit it to exert pressure for a change of tack when it comes to the “meaningful vote” or votes in a few weeks’ time. On Andrew Marr this morning Arlene Foster repeatedly declined to answer what her favoured Plan B was, while insisting Plan A was unacceptable.
“We should use the time now to look for a third way. I recognise we are negotiating with a fatigue, there comes a time when everybody is tired and just wants to get on with it but we shouldn’t accept the outcome for the sake of it,” she added.
Several newspapers have reported that the DUP is involved in discussions with several cabinet ministers about a secret “Brexit plan B”, if Mrs May’s deal does not get passed in the Commons.
Mrs Foster did not explicitly deny the report, but said her party was having “conversations right across government” about the deal.
This takes us into intriguing territory. The DUP’s bloodiest red line is no border down the Irish Sea. Norway would come close to dealing with that, and the land border. The real objections to Norway lie elsewhere – except for tiny Lichtenstein, it mandates free movement of people, a key Brexit denial delivered in the withdrawal agreement.
The DUP were not always ardent hard core Leavers. A revealing account of how the DUPs policy evolved from welcoming EU membership to Leave has been quarried from a major research project by Tony Connelly, RTE’s ace correspondent on EU affairs.
“When RTÉ News broke the story on the morning of 4 December that the UK had accepted the principle of the North remaining aligned to the rules of the single market and customs union, a DUP delegation was at that very moment being briefed in Downing Street by the Chief Whip Julian Smith.
It was a bridge too far for a party already highly strung over the direction of the negotiations.
Word was sent back to Arlene Foster in Stormont. As the lunch to seal the Joint Report between Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May got under way in Brussels, the prime minister was obliged to take a phone call from Arlene Foster. She told the Prime Minister the deal was unacceptable.
Mrs May had to return to London empty handed. It was a moment of brutal humiliation for the British government.
It seemed a moment of immense triumph.
However, according to a new research paper by academics Mary C. Murphy and Jonathan Evershed from the Department of Government and Politics at UCC, this was an ambiguous moment.
“[Arlene] Foster’s torpedoing of the first draft of the Joint Agreement between the UK government and the EU27 represented the peak of her party’s power but also, arguably, its natural limit.”
Every European election was about out-voting Sinn Féin, or previously the SDLP, and seats in Brussels and Strasbourg gave the party funding and a platform. On issues such as farming, fisheries, infrastructure and PEACE funding, the DUP was pragmatic to say the least.
It now seems astounding to read the DUP manifesto from 2014.
It stated: “The DUP recognises that the Single Market is one of the European Union’s most transformative assets. We want to maximise the economic opportunities that it presents for Northern Ireland.
“As a region of the UK, Northern Ireland is now part of a Europe that is better connected than ever before, by air, rail, sea and online. With better connectivity there is an inherent potential for economic growth, via the free movement of labour, goods, capital and services. [The DUP] wants to help businesses and individuals in our local communities to exploit this potential.
“We are committed to promoting Northern Ireland’s highly-educated and high-skilled workforce at an EU level and showcasing our region of the UK as an hospitable business environment within the Single Market.”
Arlene Foster’s elevation coincided with uncomfortable change that was already happening to the party. The traditional, evangelical base needed managing as a younger, more modernising and economically liberal wing emerged.
While devolution shifted the centre of gravity to Stormont and away from Westminster, its MPs were, somewhat out of sight, allowed to cultivate links with Conservative eurosceptics.
Senior party figures including Nigel Dodds (below) helped establish Vote Leave, while policy officer Lee Reynolds was seconded to Northern Ireland as the campaign’s regional coordinator.
One DUP member told researchers the party was “gobsmacked” when the referendum results rolled in. None of the members seriously thought the Leave side would win.
Rather than wearing the expected mantle of “noble losers”, the DUP suddenly had to defend a policy it only half believed in.
And yet, the result was immediately destabilising. The Northern institutions were already fragile. There was an immediate row with the Irish Government over its call for an all-island response to Brexit. Sinn Féin demanded a border poll.
However, the DUP showed its pragmatic side when Arlene Foster signed a joint letter on 20 August 2016 with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, on safeguarding the gains of the peace process.
The letter highlighted the need to protect “the border [issue], the all-island energy market, EU peace funding and the need to maintain tariff- and barrier-free trade with the EU, particularly for agri-foods…”
Northern Ireland Executive officials were impressed at the speed with which the letter was drawn up, run through the various departments, and published.
But the bipartisan approach evaporated with the collapse of the Assembly over the RHI scandal and the Irish language.
When, through a fluke of electoral politics, the DUP was gifted the balance of power following the 2017 general election, any hope of avoiding a deeper polarisation in Northern politics melted away completely.
But there was a clear gulf opening up between the DUP and business, one that has been exploited by Theresa May…
But for the DUP both the constitutional and the economic impacts are very real
It is true that just because businesses are warming to the Withdrawal Agreement it does not, of course, mean it will get through the House of Commons. And even if the divorce treaty survives (somehow) in its current form by 29 March next year, there are many tricky questions about how the Irish Protocol will work.
The exact modalities of how to check goods going from GB to Northern Ireland have yet to be fleshed out. Who will manage these checks and where, and what role, if any, will the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive have?
This suggests a long period of wrangling over how the backstop will apply in Northern Ireland, if indeed it is triggered. So the party political rancour, with the DUP at its heart, will continue.
The paper by Mary C. Murphy and Jonathan Evershed of UCC suggests the DUP does not have an easy way out of this. “This is reminiscent of the Unionism of old – besieged, insecure, defensive and distrustful.
“From the DUP’s perspective, Brexit simultaneously represents an unanticipated moment of political opportunity and of existential threat.”
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