Last week’s violence is a reminder that Northern Ireland must be the Brexit priority

It’s a fact that won’t change, no matter how many of May’s Tory opponents quit the government.


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Another day, another resignation from the foothills of government, this time from Robert Courts, the Conservative MP for David Cameron’s old seat of Witney. Whether the first collision comes this week or when the final deal between the European Union and the United Kingdom comes before the Commons, Theresa May has a big parliamentary problem.

While there are large parts of Theresa May's white paper that are unworkable in their current form and other parts that will be unacceptable to the EU27, the crucial thing about it is not the content but the decision it represents. There are two post-Brexit destinations for the United Kingdom: high freedom, low trade, and low freedom, high trade. Canada or Norway, in other words. May's white paper matters because it is the first time she has decisively chosen one over the other – and signalled that, when push comes to shove, maintaining market access will come before maximising British autonomy.

Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, a reminder that this all matters beyond the narrow question of who leads the Conservative Party and even beyond the rather more important one of what the British economy looks like at the end of it all. 

Violence often accompanies the commemorations of 12 July, which marks the victory of William of Orange over James II and the beginning of the Protestant Ascendancy in Northern Ireland. But this year's outbreak was more severe than usual and culminated in an explosive being thrown at the home of Gerry Adams, the former leader of Sinn Féin, and Bobby Storey, a former member of the IRA. The DUP and Sinn Féin have issued a joint statement calling for an end to violence, but the breakdown of power-sharing has eroded trust between those two power brokers.

It matters because it is an illustration of a fact that May's Tory opponents refuse to acknowledge – indeed, the word “Ireland” does not feature once in David Davis’s call in today's FT for the United Kingdom to have full regulatory freedom after Brexit – which is that more than the economy, more than a sparkly trade deal with Donald Trump, the preservation of the constitutional status quo in Northern Ireland has to be the number one priority for the British government in the Brexit talks. That means a Brexit in which the United Kingdom remains with the regulatory and customs orbit of the European Union.

And that won't change, no matter how many parliamentary private secretaries quit the government.

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.