Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Offering the EU a bigger divorce payment is pointless without progress on Ireland

The British government position on this issue is closer to science fiction than a policy proposal.

Another staging post in the Brexit talks looks set to end in deadlock, but Theresa May is gearing up to raise her offer to the EU27 about how much she is willing to pay to secure the trade talks she needs. The most important story you will read today, however, is in the FT (if you're a Remainer) or the Telegraph (if you're a leaver).

The short version: a leaked European Commission paper proposes an all-island approach to Brexit to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Under the proposals, Northern Ireland would remain inside the customs union and regulatory framework of the European Union, which would mean there would be no border on the island of Ireland, and would instead be one in the Irish sea.

The British government position – restated by James Brokenshire this week – is closer to science fiction than a policy proposal. The government has ruled out: a) physical infrastructure on the Irish border, b) a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and c) remaining in the customs union and the single market. These three positions cannot be reconciled with one another, no matter how many times government ministers use the word "creativity".

If you have a different customs and regulatory regime, you have to have some form of border checks to ensure that, for instance, the toothbrush you buy in the Boots in Dublin is safe to use when you plug it in in Belfast. The political and emotional trade-offs are not easy but they are simple: you can't have an open border if you don't share a regulatory regime.

And because a hard border both disrupts the political balance in Northern Ireland and hits the Irish economy, it is tricky, to put it mildly, to see how it is ever politically tenable for Leo Varadkar or whoever is taoiseach in March 2019 to sign off a Brexit deal that puts a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Now of course from the perspective of most people in the rest of the United Kingdom, a special status for Northern Ireland is a price they are more than happy to pay for a Brexit deal. In fact they don't really conceive of it as a price in any sense. That even holds true for most Tory MPs and the bulk of Brexit's outriders in SW1 and the press. The name "Conservative and Unionist Party" increasingly recalls that joke from Yes, Minister about White Papers: by putting the difficult stuff in the title, you avoid having to tackle it later on.

The difficulty for Theresa May is that as far as the Democratic Unionist Party goes, the word "Unionist" is not remotely ornamental.

It may be that increasing the size of the UK's offer from £20bn will unblock progress at this stage. But sooner or later, there will have to be a reckoning with the fact that the British government's current position on the Irish border is the stuff of science fiction, and that no real-world proposal can unite the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the political demands of perpetuating the Conservative Party in office.

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”