The latest Project Fear is a UK government analysis of the impact of No Deal on the Republic’s trade. It says that 80% of their trade with Europe passes over the British land bridge to ports such as Dover. No deal barriers causing expected congestion there would have a catastrophic effect on the Irish economy. The aim is to soften up Varadkar’s apparently implacable support for the backstop. Project Fear is accompanied by Project Puff up and Soothe the DUP, revealed in a Guardian headline report reeking of spin from the same Downing St cell.
“You unlock huge numbers of Tory MPs if you can get something the DUP can accept,” the cabinet minister said. “There’s no point at all in holding a vote until you win back the DUP. That is the absolute priority.”
Several cabinet sources played down the prospect of any efforts to try to form a coalition of support with Labour MPs and said all efforts were focused on regaining the DUP’s support.
“You cannot get this deal through only on the back of Labour votes because it would split the Tory party,” one official said. “That means one thing – bringing the DUP back on board.
May made great play of a renewed relationship with the DUP when she addressed the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs last week, telling them she had made mistakes and allowed the relationship to “drift” but that she and Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, were now on “one page”.
They also said the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, could break the impasse with some minor concessions, suggesting he had to budge about 5% to get the deal across the line. “That’s all he needs to do.”
Then comes the letdown. It turns out it’s about making the same old case closer to the wire that was rejected by the EU before Mrs May settled for the agreement with the backstop.
She told the House of Commons on Monday she would be seeking legal and political assurances around “the firm date for introducing the future relationship”.
“That is currently December 2020, we will be continuing discussions on this point,” she said.
One MP said this was a “creative idea” because if the new start date was moved to not later than December 2022, this would dovetail with the two-year transition period extension option in the current deal.
But one DUP source said: “The difficulty is how can you legally guarantee trade talks will be over by any date?”
On Tuesday, the DUP MP Gavin Robinson said the party was engaging constructively with the changes May was pursuing. “She went back to the European commission, she has said that work is ongoing and that the changes will be legally enforceable,”
Privately, DUP sources were more sceptical of the progress being made, saying “tinkering around the edges” would not be enough and that the party remained unconvinced May could extract a guarantee over a firm start date for a future trade deal.
It is understood there are no meetings scheduled over Christmas between May and DUP leaders.
The only half realistic idea emerging from the three hour split cabinet was May’s alleged determination to include indicative votes on Brexit alternatives in the meaningful vote debate due to begin on 7th January. According to the Daily Telegraph, the cabinet were split even on this.
There are those that worry that ‘no deal’ might garner the largest number of MP’s votes, but that should only serve as a catalyst to the overwhelming majority of MPs in Parliament which, whatever their other preferences, are clearly against that most destructive option of all.
That is why today’s Cabinet’s ‘no deal’ preparations are really theatre, not substance, since it is clear to everyone the UK is not ready; and that includes Brexiteers who implicitly admit as much with their talk of ‘buying’ a one-year transition deal that doesn’t exist if Article 50 is allowed to lapse.
For what it’s worth, the EU side can see this too – they don’t seriously think the UK will allow a ‘no deal’ because they see from recent votes that Parliament is set against it and they know just how disruptive and costly it would be.
What everyone should want is for Parliament to start the process of making choices, not ducking them. An indicative vote (which MPs should demand, if the Government won’t) would be a useful first step on that road.
It’s a rudderless ship, drifting on a bonanza of public spending to plot the course straight to the rocks. Can they turn away in time?
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