When is a U-Turn not a U-Turn? When it’s a Theresa May U-Turn. The government has published its draft proposals for the backstop – the fallback arrangement that will prevent the establishment of a hard border on the island of Ireland, and David Davis has secured the concession he craves: a time limit for the arrangement, which Brexiteers fear will last forever.
The problem with a time limit on a fallback option is that it makes no sense. Imagine you are selling your house to move into another one: if you sell your house but you cannot immediately buy another, you will of course rent somewhere to live as a fallback arrangement. You wouldn’t declare that this period of renting must end on a specific date, regardless of whether you were able to move into your new home. You would rent for as long as you need to.
Brexiteers are right to fear that some Remainers hope that this temporary arrangement will go on forever, but they are wrong to believe that the sustainable solution to this is an arbitrary time limit, at which point the United Kingdom might crash out without a deal, with dire economic consequences and severe political repercussions for their hopes of delivering Brexit.
As far as managing the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union, the draft sentence is not an unreasonable one: “the UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest”. To return to the house analogy, I may “expect” to complete the purchase of my new home in six months, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. The problem with this date is that it doesn’t line up with the EU budgeting period, which ends in December 2020. It makes sense to try to wrap up Brexit by this date, as extensions to the transitional period will have to line up with the EU budget cycle, so missing that date means that the transitional arrangement will have to run for at least another seven years (the length of the EU budget period). Again, the house metaphor is helpful: if I rent on a six-month lease and my house purchase takes seven months, I can end up renting for the remaining five months of the second lease, even if my new home is ready to be moved into. Anyone worried that the transition will last forever has no reason to be reassured by this draft.
The problem for the Conservatives is that because Theresa May is not being honest with them – or indeed with the United Kingdom as a whole – about this, still preferring to call the transition period an “implementation period”, if the British government does have to ask for more time in December 2021, the political blowback is likely to be severe. At absolute best, it will disfigure parliamentary selections for would-be Conservative MPs, as activists demand that their new candidates guarantee a swift exit, perhaps an exit without a deal. At worst, those ructions, and the demands for a disastrous exit, won’t merely be confined to the walls of the Conservative Party.