Tuesday 5 December
Any doubts over Theresa May’s suitability for the role of Brexit Prime Minister were wiped out yesterday as the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party Proposed to essentially keep Northern Ireland in the Single Market.
Unsurprisingly, she provoked the immediate ire of the DUP, to whom she is completely dependent upon for her Parliamentary majority. Elder statesmen of the Party, Sammy Wilson charitably sought to defend Mrs May’s honour yesterday, accusing Brussels and Dublin of treating the beleaguered Prime Minister “like dirt”. Needless to say, the acts of chivalry were only going in one direction. Downing Street will have to turn that around. Brussels has given the Government four days to patch together relations with the DUP and resurrect yesterday’s dreadful “regulatory alignment” deal.
The Ulstermen have not officially threatened to pull out of their confidence and supply agreement propping up the Tory Government, but no-one is under any illusions, both the forward trajectory of the Brexit talks and the very existence of this government hinge on the DUP’s will.
A diplomatic charm offensive is in full swing, but of the many lessons to draw from yesterday’s catastrophe, it is that we need less wishy-washy diplomacy and more honest politics.
Last week’s Leave.EU blog on the Irish border question explained in full the uncomfortable truth: Brexit will have lead to the creation of a hard border within the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea. If the Government cannot stomach either of those options, the only alternative is for the UK to remain resolutely attached to the EU’s punishing regulatory regime, bound by treaty.
The blog, like the British commentariat last week instinctively dismissed the prospect of the UK staying in the Single Market, or the imposition of an internal customs border. But the Government had other plans. Revealing yesterday in its draft agreement with the EU that the North of Ireland would be drawn into a regulatory alignment arrangement with the South, thereby permitting the freest possible exchange of goods on the island, without need for customs checks.
That would mean goods traded between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland would have to be processed if Westminster was to proceed with its post-Brexit EU red-tape cutting agenda. Choosing to avoid internal customs controls would bring everything tumbling down in no time.
For instance, if Britain were to adapt standards on poultry, permitting the washing of chickens in chlorine, a practice recommended by the EU’s health authority, but banned on political grounds by the EU itself, chickens reared in the UK and shipped to the North of Ireland could easily make their way into the Republic, from there, they could find themselves anywhere in the EEA. A case would be lodged with the European Court of Justice in no time.
Chlorinated chicken is a telling example, it is widely recognised as a condition of a comprehensive trade deal by the United States. The best option for the UK remains to impose a hard border in Ireland.
The diplomats see it differently of course. Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar was said be pleased with the “language” of the draft agreement between the EU and the UK keeping Northern Ireland in the Single Market. Language implies wiggle room and differences of interpretation to be ironed out at a more convenient juncture, but the Irish case is one of yes and no, right and wrong, life and death. There is no twilight.
At the negotiating table, the DUP combine skill with scorched earth tactics, they are formidable in the extreme. We must not, therefore, discount the possibility they are deliberately embarrassing the Government to gather leverage.
The Party’s leadership were in dialogue with Downing Street over the course of the weekend. The contents of the draft resolution to the Irish border question with the EU, as dreadful as it was, would have been known to its leader Arlene Foster and presumably approved by her – would the Government really be stupid enough to sell a deal to the EU that a crucial partner disapproved of. Yet the DUP leader took the first opportunity to condemn the Prime Minister halfway through her lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker after the document was leaked without Mrs May’s knowledge.
The DUP are pushing for an open border with the Republic along with all the benefits of Brexit. The two are mutually exclusive. That does not make Mrs May’s position any easier however. She and her team are now locked in a twenty-four hour marathon session of talks with Foster and her advisers to salvage the agreement Mr Juncker was on the verge of approving.
This is the wrong approach. Whether the DUP were being underhand with the Tories or not, for those few moments after the deal’s publications and before Foster’s intervention we were given a panoramic view of the catastrophic knock-on effects of an internal border within the United Kingdom. Both Nicola Surgeon and Sadiq Khan stupidly tore open Pandora’s box, suggesting hard borders be put in place at the Scottish border and around the M25 respectively. As Brexiteers, we owe the DUP a debt of gratitude.
The good money is on May promising more public spending and all sorts of other goodies to the DUP in return for support of her disgraceful agreement with Brussels, which is itself a carbon copy of Dublin’s original proposal that both Whitehall and Downing Street were reported to have considered a joke. Mrs May used to call herself a Unionist, she is in danger of being the Prime Minister of who disassembles it.
In other news: in the fourth day of the committee stage, amendments to the EU Withdrawl Bill yesterday were all defeated.