The most important Brexit speech last week wasn't given by Theresa May

The question that the British government can't answer. 

NS

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If this year’s Conservative party conference is remembered for anything, it will be the spectacle of Theresa May struggling to finish her speech as the set collapsed around her. But a more significant speech was given at the start of the conference by one of her old deputies at the Home Office, now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire.

Brokenshire confirmed that Brexit means leaving both the single market and the customs union, before turning to the specific question of what that means for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

First he ruled out the establishment of “physical infrastructure” – that’s “checkpoints” in plain English – at the land border on the island of Ireland. Then he ruled out a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom – that is to say, he ruled out customs checks at ports in Northern Ireland and flights from Northern Ireland to the United Kingdom.

The difficulty is that this is a lot like Eddie Izzard’s famous “cake or death” sketch. There is no third option: if the United Kingdom leaves the customs union, then it has to have customs checks somewhere between it and the only EU nation with which it shares a land border. It can have them in the Irish sea – between the island of Ireland and Britain – or it can have them on land.

What it can’t do is have neither, unless the United Kingdom opts to remain in the customs union. Which the government has already ruled out.

This matters for a number of reasons, not least that the possibility for any physical border, whether that be the erection of checkpoints on land or checks at sea, is going to increase tensions in Northern Ireland and the Republic. But the most important Brexit-related consequence is that the Irish border is one of the areas where the negotiations must reach “sufficient progress” before they can move onto the future relationship stage.

The European Union’s mandate to its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is every bit as reality-detached as Brokenshire ruling out all of the available options. You can’t “resolve” the issue of the Irish border until there is a clear idea of what the future relationship will be. That’s why Barnier is trying to persuade member states to loosen his mandate so he can park the Irish question, albeit briefly.

But the most troubling problem of all is that even if Barnier succeeds in his task, the British government doesn’t have a solution to the border question, whenever it is discussed. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.