Downing Street talks as if a Brexit deal has never been closer, yet agreement on Ireland – the most significant obstacle left – is as far away as it has ever been.
Still stubbornly unresolved is the question of the backstop, the legal mechanism that will effectively keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and in regulatory alignment with the EU in order to prevent a hard border, unless and until a trade deal or another agreed solution does. There can be no deal without it.
For Theresa May, this EU insurance policy creates manifold problems. A trade deal that would preclude the need for new infrastructure on the border does not exist, and nor do the bits of technology that Brexiteers insist could. The arrangement would be as good as permanent – anathema to Tory Brexiteers. It would also divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK – anathema to the Prime Minister’s allies in the DUP.
Helpfully, Brussels has signalled its willingness to accept an all-UK customs union as a backstop, which would largely obviate the need for specific arrangements for Northern Ireland. But “largely” isn’t the same as “entirely” – a customs union wouldn’t in of itself prevent a hardening of the border. As such, the EU says that there will have to be a separate backstop for Northern Ireland alone. The British government hopes measures in a UK-wide customs backstop that apply only to Northern Ireland could do the same job.
But the enthusiasm with which the likes of Dominic Raab advertise their desire to insert a break clause or time limit into the backstop agreement – rendering it useless – only strengthens both the European Commission and Dublin’s insistence than there must be a backstop for Northern Ireland alone. Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, told Theresa May this morning that Ireland would be willing to consider some sort of mechanism for ending the UK-wide customs union provided for by the backstop, but stressed it would never accept a mechanism that could be triggered unilaterally by Britain.
The net result of all of this is that whatever deal May strikes will alienate either Tory Brexiteers, who want a time limit or the ability to cut loose, or the DUP, who, like said Tories, do not want a backstop that only applies to Northern Ireland. Nor, I am told, will the latter accept two solutions proposed this weekend.
As much as they have been spun to the contrary, both a UK-wide backstop with regulatory “bolt-ons” for Northern Ireland, and new regulatory checks that take place in the marketplace and not at the border would violate the unionist red line that the government keep trying to trick them into forgetting about. (“The tactic of expecting a different outcome through repetition falls into the casual definition of madness,” is how a DUP source described the government’s tactics to me recently.)
Given that May has accepted the need for a backstop as the price for a deal, it is likely that she will have to lose either the DUP or her Brexit Secretary, among other cabinet Brexiteers – and quite possibly both. That will be the subtext of any choice she makes on accepting whatever backstop fudge negotiations in Brussels eventually delivers.