The UK is headed for a no deal Brexit. What will it take for the Tories to realise?

The Conservative Party doesn’t want to stay in the EU, but it doesn’t really seem to want to leave it either.


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Better not scream, better not shout: Michel Barnier is coming to town. (Alright, to Brussels.) He will take soundings from member states and the Commission about what he makes of Theresa May's Chequers plan and then deliver a press conference on his thinking.

Last week’s calculation by both heads of governments and the Commission was that while Chequers is a legal hotchpotch that is unworkable both politically and legally, that May had signalled her direction of travel meant that it should be handled politely in public in order to finesse the necessary concessions that the British government would have to swallow to turn the Chequers plan into something tangible.

Now that calculation is essentially pointless as, barring a major political shift at Westminster, May cannot make the necessary concessions. It remains to be seen whether, as it becomes clearer that the United Kingdom’s present trajectory is towards no deal at all, domestic politics will shift here at home.

Elsewhere, May will open up another front in her clashes with the Commission, this time over the Irish border. She will warn against the backstop as a “Northern Ireland only” solution in the event of the United Kingdom exiting without a deal. On this one, May has a point: the December agreement between the EU and the UK was unclear as to whether the backstop would be extended to the whole of the United Kingdom or merely to Northern Ireland. And as far as defending the constitutional status quo in Northern Ireland goes, the political problem doesn't change if the hard border is on sea rather than land.

But the problem is that the Conservative Party doesn't want a UK-wide backstop either – it refuses to accept the customs and regulatory alignment that would entail, let alone the continued payments and free movement of labour. The reality is that the only UK-wide backstop would be indefinite transition and for the United Kingdom to be a rule-taker forever in the absence of an agreed final relationship. Good luck getting that past the House of Commons.

And that's the real reason why it doesn't matter what Michel Barnier says today. The Tory Party doesn't want the economic hit that goes with a Canada-style trade agreement, it doesn't want the loss of its freedom that goes with membership of the EEA and Efta, it doesn't want the backstop to apply to Northern Ireland alone, it doesn't want the backstop to apply to the United Kingdom as a whole, it doesn't want a hard border, it doesn't want to stay in the European Union but it doesn't really seem to want to leave it either. I doubt very much that it actually really wants the multi-billion pound spending commitments that will go with “planning for no deal” either.

But no deal is where we are heading, with the only question how much damage the Conservatives have to sustain – to both their political prospects and the country as a whole – before reality is allowed to intrude on the Brexit process.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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