As a result of their severe beating in the European election that was itself the product of their internal disarray, the two parties of UK government are evolving into the Conservatives as the party of Leave and Labour the party of Remain. Newly conventional wisdom says the middling choices are disappearing between the main parties and within them. But the starkness of the choices – if that’s what they prove to be – is making them no easier to accept. The embarrassing plethora of Tory leadership candidates is in inverse proportion of the choices available and is itself a symptom of deep confusion.
The Conservatives are now torn in at least three ways: between leadership candidates who must leave at all costs by 31 October; those among them intending to ask for an extension beyond that date ; and a few who pretend it can all be done and dusted in time. Only Boris Johnson and Esther McVey are in the first camp. Boris Johnson will shuffle over to the second, leaving McVey “in favour or electoral suicide, ” as her critics would say, and isolated from the other eight – now ten since this morning – who have already declared. She needs the ERG’s pure Brexiteer Steve Baker to keep her company.
The second split is more significant: between those prepared to default to No Deal and those determined to prevent No Deal at all costs. Only Rory Stewart the International development secretary would opt for Remain if a No Deal is the preferred result. With variable conviction, the others are promising new plans which will succeed where Theresa May’s failed. Variable conviction is the point. How many of them honestly still believe in a deal ? Or No Deal? The party hustings which relegate us to onlookers must winkle out the truth. A hard Brexit pitch to the party activists can soften under pressure of reality.
The objective truth is that No Deal is looking more likely. The withdrawal agreement is deemed to be dead . The present EU regime insists that it is non- negotiable and yet all the contenders are insisting on re-negotiating it.
So in the leadership vacuum the Tories look headed for a fatal clash between No Dealers insisting the party is toast if they don’t leave by 31 October; and a significant minority led by the present Chancellor will bring their own government down and precipitate a general election if they try.
After three years of failure, less than four working months remain for MPs to agree a British position by the deadline and for the EU to respond. Whatever some candidates claim under hustings conditions, this is impossible to meet.
An extension of the deadline requested by the government and granted by the EU is likely but not certain. It would be hard to refuse if both the Conservatives and Labour threw up their hands and opted for an election either by default or free choice, or presented a proposal to a new EU order that looks viable. The ability to pass through parliament as well as the EU is the acid test.
Does such a proposal exist?
The Remainers and most academic observers insist that the favoured “alternative arrangements” is a unicorn already rejected by the EU. Nevertheless – and arguing that the alternatives were never properly put – most leadership candidates who have spoken are pinning their hopes on a change of heart by the new EU commission and parliament installed after 1 November. A study group from across the Tory factions called the Alternative Arrangements Commission promises a revised version soon.
As Theresa May promised in the final, aborted version of her revised withdrawal agreement Bill, this group is revisiting the details of the Malthouse Compromise. The omens are not particularly good. The EU’s rejection of the existing version EU was incisively analysed by Queen’s Katy Hayward.
The “compromise” set a firm deadline of end January 2021, extendible. But any deadline is incompatible with the insurance principle that is the backstop. Customs checks would still be needed somewhere if not on the actual border line. The absence of legal guarantees to underpin trust would allow regulations identical on day one to diverge in the interest of making new trading arrangements with other countries. And new technological solutions to replace border controls won’t be ready for years.
Apparently undaunted, the study group is intent on building a new level of trust to replace the legalistic approach of the EU commission which so frustrated and finally defeated the British. And they have one further argument closer to home. The framework for establishing trust is the Good Friday Agreement.
Key players in the group are the unionist leaning figures Lord Paul Bew, a former Executive adviser, and Graham Gudgin of the think tank Policy Exchange .Their basic argument is that the UK government has the right to suspend any aspect of the backstop from a perceived threat to peace. Dublin and the EU should recognise this right. (They don’t specify the threat but presumably in this case it would come from loyalists rather than republican dissidents). Under the GFA any fresh agreement over north -south matters like animal health and trade requires “the specific endorsement” of the Assembly. These should therefore be negotiated through the Agreement which Dublin and the EU claim so passionately to defend. Failure to do so they claim could be a breach of the Agreement and therefore of international law.
With the old withdrawal agreement finally dead, a revised version of alternative arrangements would bring Dublin to its senses and EU 26 to follow, deeply impressed that it had passed the Commons at last.
Yes, it does seem desperate and it’s as likely to suffer the same fate in Brussels as the old one. The best –and probably the only – hope of acceptance is to transfer the whole agenda to the political declaration and the longer term.
Tory opinion will be tested on the leadership hustings over the next few weeks. Would the DUP play ball and supply the essential votes for a government majority at last? The re-elected Diane Dodds has just said the DUP have never been a party of No Deal. So if that choice is ruthlessly exposed, perhaps they will support a new deal little different from the last one, provided they can look forward to the different future of a free trade deal which the local establishment have a hand in monitoring.
Again yes, you’ve heard it all before, but not with the stakes so high.
Leadership contender Jeremy Hunt would invite the DUP onto his negotiating team along with (presumably Tory) representatives from Scotland and Wales. He clearly hopes to forge a credible proposal to avoid a second referendum , IndyRef 2 and a border poll, all of which would be more likely under a Labour-led government. Or if you prefer, he would hang the threat a border poll and a second independence referendum over their heads if they reject a deal he managed to strike.
In theory one recourse is a general election with Labour as strong favourite. But after the Euros, neither party is in any shape to fight it. The official Labour line preferring an election is a fig leaf to cover their own deep split.
The real default for both parties is a second referendum.
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