Going down the Brexit rabbit hole

As the deadline looms, Theresa May is still wrestling with the Gordian knot of the Irish border question, writes Eddie Ford

With the clock ticking loudly, Theresa May is coming under increased pressure on all fronts. At the end of last week, more than 70 business leaders signed a letter to The Sunday Times calling for a “public vote” on any deal struck with the European Union. Among those signing the letter were the chief executive of Waterstones, former bosses of both Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer, and the founders of Innocent Drinks and Lastminute.com. Maybe not the A-List of British business, but nevertheless still significant.

The letter goes on to complain that business had been “promised that, if the country voted to leave, there would continue to be frictionless trade with the EU and the certainty about future relations that we need to invest for the long term”. Yet, it continues, despite the prime minister’s “best efforts”, the “proposals being discussed by the government and the European Commission fall far short of this” - which over the past two years “has already led to a slump in investment”. Making a barbed point, the Waterstones boss, James Daunt, told the BBC that “all the paper we use is imported” and “we rely on just-in-time methods”, but now “there are multiple uncertainties”. The letter concludes by saying, “we are now facing either a blindfold or a destructive hard Brexit” - and, given that “neither was on the ballot in 2016”, the “ultimate choice should be handed back to the public”.

Somewhat predictably, the letter was coordinated by the extremely well-financed People’s Vote campaign - which intends to launch a new group called Business for a People’s Vote on November 8, keeping up the pressure on Theresa May. Of course, the letter follows the massive People’s Vote march in central London on October 20, which attracted a claimed 700,000 people - a success in anybody’s book.

Adding to the chorus, more than 1,500 of the UK’s top lawyers have written a letter to the prime minister, arguing that parliament should not be bound by the 2016 vote, any more than it should be by the 1975 referendum that took Britain into the EU - especially when there were “question marks over its validity”. For the writers of the letter, there is a “key difference” between 1975 and 2016: the earlier referendum “was held after negotiations were complete, so voters knew what they were voting for”; but the latest one was held when “the nature of the negotiation process and its outcome were unknown”. Therefore, we read, “voters faced a choice between a known reality and an unknown alternative” - meaning that during the referendum campaign “untestable claims took the place of facts and reality”.

Now being obviously the letter writing season, over 1,000 people from both sides of the border in Ireland - including representatives from the arts, business, education, sport, law and medicine - have written an open letter to the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, asking him to “stand firm in these negotiations, to stand up for the Good Friday agreement and a rights-based society, and to ensure that rights enjoyed in Donegal will continue to be enjoyed in Derry”.

Unsurprisingly though, the government is digging its heels in, a No10 spokesperson reiterating that there has already been a “people’s vote” - on June 23 2016. There will not be another one. As for the Labour Party, it might be supporting “all options remaining on the table” - but for the leadership another “public vote” is clearly its least favourite option. Rather, it wants to somehow trigger a general election, though the means by which Labour can do so remains a bit of a mystery.


Meanwhile, going further down the Brexit rabbit hole, the British government continues to wrestle with the “Gordian knot” of the Irish border question - to use the words of Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council. EU officials are on record saying that the chances of May striking a deal with Brussels on the Irish border that she can sell to her own cabinet, the Tory Party as a whole and parliament are about “50-50” - which seems a rather generous assessment.

On November 6 the prime minister presented the latest Brexit options to the most senior members of her cabinet, who were reportedly “locked” away in a room to study the document under “strict secrecy”. British officials now appear to have abandoned any hope of making enough progress this week in order for a special EU summit to be held on November 17 for the purpose of signing off the divorce deal - now aiming for the end of the month - getting dangerously near the December deadline. There could be no deal simply by the fact that the British parliament and the respective European parliaments just do not have enough time to debate, vote and have the necessary legislation in place before March 29 the next year - unless the article 50 process is delayed or extended, of course, as some people are now openly advocating. But, naturally, the government is currently arguing that is not an option either.

Unhappily for May, both options on the table regarding the Irish backstop are politically fraught. Essentially, the UK government commits itself to staying in a customs union with the EU, which it could only leave by “mutual agreement” from both parties - to obvious screams of ‘betrayal’ by Brexiteers fearing that Britain could be stuck in a permanent state of limbo, unable to set its own trade policy outside the EU’s tariff regime. Or the UK joins a temporary customs union with the bloc with the ability to exit the arrangement “unilaterally” - which might be more pleasing to the Brexiteers, but still means that the ‘backstop to the backstop’ will eventually kick in at some point. In other words, Northern Ireland would remain in “full regulatory alignment” with the EU’s customs territory, whilst mainland Britain would go its own separate way. But May has insisted that such an arrangement would destroy the “constitutional integrity” of the UK.

Indeed, Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, really put the cat amongst the pigeons last week when he was reported in The Daily Telegraph as saying in a “robust meeting” with Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, that Britain wants the right to pull out unilaterally from any backstop plan to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland with just three months notice - the UK having the ability to trigger a “review mechanism”, in which the backstop would only persist by “mutual consent”. This flies in the face of everything that has come out of Dublin and Brussels, which have consistently demanded an “all-weather” guarantee.

Coveney gave short shrift to Raab’s proposals, it goes without saying. He tweeted at the beginning of the week that a “time-limited backstop”, or one that could be ended by the UK any time it wanted, would never be agreed to by either the Irish government or the EU - such ideas “don’t deliver on previous UK commitments”. The office of the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, released a statement shortly after Theresa May had called him on the Monday morning to ‘clarify’ Raab’s remarks, which said that, while Ireland was open to the possibility of “a review mechanism” for the backstop, “the outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop”. Prior to speaking to May on the phone, Varadkar had previously warned that a backstop with a three-month limit or expiry “isn’t worth the paper it’s written on”. On the same day, Downing Street confirmed the call had taken place “to take stock of the progress being made in the negotiations” - the British and Irish leaders had agreed the backstop would be “a temporary arrangement”, and May had emphasised that there would need to be “a mechanism through which the backstop could be brought to an end”.

The mood music from Brussels seems to indicate that there is a gradual softening towards the idea of an all-UK customs union, which would replace the idea of a Northern Ireland-specific arrangement, albeit with “deeper” clauses specific to the province. However, that would require a de facto acceptance by Downing Street that it would in effect be a permanent arrangement - which would only further enrage the Tory right. More betrayal.


It has been widely reported that Theresa May told her cabinet on November 6 to “stand by their diaries”, government sources suggesting that ministers could be summoned for an emergency meeting later this week to sign off the backstop proposal before presenting it to Brussels, possibly later this month. We shall see. Details of an alleged “communications grid” supposedly intended to sell a Brexit strategy have been leaked to The Guardian and other papers - the document saying that “the narrative is going to be measured success, that this is good for everyone, but won’t be all champagne corks popping”.

The leaked plan lays out an apparent timetable for the month, culminating in a Commons vote on the deal it says will take place on November 27. The days before the vote will be filled with a list of media events and supportive statements, beginning with a triumphant announcement from the Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, that the cabinet has agreed a deal - then afterwards there will be all manner of exciting events including May giving a speech to the Confederation of British Industry about bringing “the country back together”, themed days such as a UK-wide sales pitch that would see May visit “the north and/or Scotland”, the Japanese prime minister tweeting support for the deal, and an interview with David Dimbleby. A Downing Street source immediately responded by saying that “the misspelling and childish language in this document should be enough to make clear it doesn’t represent the government’s thinking” - not a particularly convincing rebuttal.

Bringing us back to reality, Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times shrewdly notes that the Brexit negotiations have exposed the UK’s real status in the world - “humiliation is too strong; a national humbling is more accurate” (November 5). The idea - or fantasy - behind Brexit was that, once freed from the shackles of the EU, the UK would take its “rightful place” in the world - which is sort of happening, but not in the way imagined! Shrimsley writes that the nation is “facing the painful truth that the UK is not as pre-eminent as it has liked to believe” - and “for proof” just look at the negotiations over the Irish border, in which the UK has been “pushed around” by Ireland, because the EU has “thrown its weight” behind its demands. The hard fact, he remarks, is that this “power imbalance” has meant the UK is being forced to choose between the “chaos” of a ‘no deal’ Brexit or “undermining the constitutional integrity of one of its four sovereign parts”, and signing up to a “significant amount of rule-taking” too - which is what happens “when a single country that is not America or China negotiates with a global trading bloc”.

Yet the endgame is finally coming for the government, with negotiators this week formally entering what Brussels describes as “the tunnel” - a period of private talks during which neither side is expected to brief outsiders about developments. As one Irish official put it, “once anything gets out, it melts like a snowflake”. Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has bluntly stated that it is not the opposition’s “duty” to back May’s deal: “we can’t be expected, with a gun to our head, to back the prime minister, whatever she comes back with”. Labour, he declared, will vote down a “blind Brexit” deal that contains no details about the future trading relationship with the EU - whether you voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ two years ago, Starmer added, “nobody voted for the purgatory of permanent negotiations”.

It is near impossible to predict what will happen next, but it is incredibly hard to imagine it finishing well for Theresa May and the Tory government.