Breakthrough imminent? Theresa May has embarked on a round of shuttle diplomacy as she seeks the concessions she needs to pass a Brexit deal.
The PM’s big aim is to extend the backstop to the whole of the United Kingdom – to guarantee that, in the absence of agreement, it is not just Northern Ireland but the whole country that remains in customs and regulatory alignment with the European Union to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The big question is: can it pass parliament? It removes one problem – the government-ending change to the Irish border that the DUP would never accept – but at the cost of another: it limits all possible future Brexits to ones in which the United Kingdom continues to have a close alignment with EU rules.
The problem Brexiteers have is that they have no workable alternative: they have ruled out a border in the Irish Sea and while they have become fond of saying that no British prime minister would sign off a deal that separated Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, they have failed to accept the corollary that no Irish Taoiseach would ever sign off a EU-UK deal that created a hard border on the island of Ireland. That means that the only Brexit that can be achieved by negotiation is a soft one.
They still retain one option: to pull the whole house down and go for Brexit without a deal. The hope of Downing Street and the Conservative whips is that this is such a nightmare for both the United Kingdom and the continued existence of the Tory party as a viable political project that dissident Tories will, come the crunch, back May’s deal. So they should be troubled by this week’s Spectator cover and the article by its influential columnist James Forsyth, which makes the case that a “no-deal” Brexit and the short-term disruption involved may be better than the longterm difficulty of May’s negotiated one. Conservative MPs might yet decide that going over the cliff is a price worth paying for their preferred exit.