Be afraid: even Northern Ireland’s police haven’t been given a plan for the border

Tory dogfights dominate coverage of Brexit. But as long as the UK doesn't have an answer to the Irish border question, it will make no progress.

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With the EU Withdrawal Bill now safely written into law, Theresa May must now clear her next Brexit hurdle: tomorrow and Friday’s meeting of the European Council.

The cabinet’s diverging opinions on just what the prime minister should be asking for – or, depending on your view, ordering the EU to gratefully accept – have been covered to death, be it Boris Johnson’s full British Brexit or Greg Clark’s Norway by any other name. 

But on Brexit, our attention is ultimately overinvested in Tory dogfights at the expense of more significant interventions from elsewhere. 

The uncomfortable fact is that most headlines concern smalltime rows about not very much that bear little relevance to the demands of the only debate that matters – that which the government is having with Brussels and the EU27.

This morning saw one such intervention: the appearance of Police Service of Northern Ireland chief George Hamilton before the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee. 

That isn’t a sentence that screams box office. But the session underlined why we are unlikely to see much progress in Brussels, or, as some well-connected Tory MPs are speculating, at the cabinet summit to end all cabinet summits at Chequers next week, when the UK’s Brexit plan is supposed to be signed off. 

Hamilton had plenty of complaints for his interlocutors. Most of them were about the Irish border, and the impossibility of coming up with a plan for how to police it after Brexit. 

“We get lots of sympathy and empathy, but we’re not getting clarity and decisions,” he said. Ministers had left him “in the dark” and with no understanding of who was in charge with responding to the day-to-day issues the imposition of a border will give rise to.

In short: the government doesn’t have a plan on the border. It has nothing to say to Brussels, Dublin, or the very people who will have to live and work around whatever change happens. 

Nor does it have the political space or ability to be honest about the trades-off necessary to come up with an actual solution – softening Brexit, welcoming a unique solution for Northern Ireland, or ditching its promise not to impose any new physical infrastructure. 

As long as people like Hamilton remain in the dark, the chances of real progress on Brexit anytime soon are very slim. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.