Contrary to what you might have read, this wasn’t the week in which the Brexit talks died. That happened on 24 July, when Boris Johnson became leader of the Conservative Party. While there is a great deal about the Brexit process that is fiendishly complicated, the main sticking point – the future arrangements for the Irish border – is incredibly simple. If you have regulatory and customs divergence, you have border checks and some degree of border infrastructure. It is true of the border between Switzerland and the EU, true of the border between Canada and the US, and true of the border between South Africa and Botswana. Despite the close economic relationships in all those cases, no amount of goodwill can entirely eradicate a border when two nations have different regulatory regimes.
What makes the British case difficult is that its land border with the EU was the location of a violent struggle within living memory. The long-standing policy of the British and Irish governments has been to keep as close to each other as possible on regulatory issues to facilitate an open border between the two nations. Now that the UK is leaving the EU, the British government has three choices as far as the Irish border is concerned.
It can go for a Brexit that keeps the whole of the UK within the customs and regulatory orbit of the EU – the arrangement envisaged by Theresa May that formed the essence of the so-called backstop. That option is unacceptable to the Conservative Party.
It can choose a Brexit in which Northern Ireland remains within the regulatory and customs orbit of the EU – the arrangement originally proposed by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. That option is unacceptable to the DUP, upon whose support the Conservatives rely to stay in office.
Or it can opt for a Brexit in which the whole of the UK leaves the customs and regulatory orbit of the EU, which means a hard border with checks on the island of Ireland. That option is and always will be unacceptable to the Irish government, whichever party is in power. The only way to achieve it is through a no-deal Brexit. When Johnson became Prime Minister he did so having ruled out May’s backstop, and, we now know, having resolved against a backstop for Northern Ireland alone. His only remaining option is, and always has been, a no-deal Brexit.
In a telephone call between Angela Merkel and Johnson on the morning of 8 October, the German Chancellor is claimed by Downing Street to have said that Northern Ireland would have to stay in a customs union “for ever”. The government’s apparent outrage at this suggestion was interpreted by most observers as a mere pre-election ploy. But will it work?
“Don’t ask us” is the answer from the British Election Study, the long-running research project into how British voters behave. According to the study, voter behaviour is now too volatile to predict election outcomes with any degree of certainty. While economics play a role in people’s voting patterns, the traditional left-right divide is no longer dominant. The new political divides are between liberalism and authoritarianism, between those with university degrees and those without, and between the old and the young. Each of the three main parties has a theory about the new world and a different way through the mess.
The Conservatives believe that politics is now in effect a game in which victory comes by dominating one half of the Brexit divide and not worrying too much about how the other lot cast their votes. Claiming that Merkel has clashed with the Prime Minister during an early morning phone conversation – in an account that everyone who is familiar with Merkel’s style, even committed Brexiteers, found implausible – is part of that strategy. As one of Johnson’s earliest backers put it to me at the start of his leadership campaign: “We have to become the Brexit party and the Labour Party has to become the anti-Brexit party. It’s the only way the two parties can survive.”
Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t share that analysis. The Labour leader’s advisers believe it is still possible to construct a majority based on the votes of both Remainers and Leavers. They think that far from representing a new fissure, the apparent divide over age and education is in fact one driven by the new contours of class in Britain. A socially liberal graduate renting a flat lacks capital or security of tenure – while a socially authoritarian pensioner, living in his or her own home or a council house, has at least one of those, and possibly both. Labour’s hope rests on a radical economic agenda designed to appeal across the Remain-Leave divide.
Jo Swinson, leader of the Liberal Democrats, thinks that Corbyn is making a fatal error, one that her party can exploit by becoming the pro-Remain opposition to Johnson’s pro-Leave government. Johnson believes that he can win a majority, while Swinson thinks that she can deny him the victory he craves and stop Brexit as a result.
The moment when their theories will be tested is fast approaching. But the difficulty for all three leaders is that they might be right and still lose the election.
Johnson may be correct to believe that the only viable path for the Conservatives is to become the party of Brexit and yet find that his route to power is blocked by tactical voting by the forces of Remain. Corbyn may be correct in believing that the new politics is about class – but the voters he is wooing might still opt for security under the Tories. And Swinson may be right in believing that politics is defined by the clash between liberalism and authoritarianism, and yet find that when push comes to shove, the fear of a Johnson landslide means that Remainers find an imperfect Corbyn less of a risk than backing the Lib Dems.
This article appears in the 09 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain