Varadkar and May. Photo: Getty
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Time is running out for Theresa May to address the Irish Brexit problem

The Brexit elite have finally moved on from science fiction – but turned to conspiracy instead.

Theresa May is preparing to make a further concession over the amount the United Kingdom is willing to pay to settle its outstanding liabilities, but the other barrier to sufficient progress – the question of the Irish border – keeps getting bigger.

In the United Kingdom, Michael Gove has won the battle to convince Theresa May that the country should seek regulatory divergence from the EU after Brexit, according to Tom Newton Dunn in the Sun. If you have regulatory divergence, you have to have checks at the border, which means you have to have a hard border to one degree or another. 

The only way you can avoid a hard border is to remain in the customs union and continue to have regulatory harmonisation – which is also the only way to get a trade deal which maintains the same level of market access to the rest of the EU as the UK currently enjoys, and vice versa. 

The problem on the UK side is that instead of engaging in the real trade-off – regulatory freedom with a hard border and less trade, or regulatory harmonisation with no border and more trade off – is that they have instead been peddling science fiction solutions about border checks by Zeppelin (unfortunately I am not joking).

The good news is that the Brexit elite have moved on from science fiction. The bad news is that they have turned to conspiracy instead. The BBC's Laura Kuenssberg reveals that Brexiteers believe the border issue is being inflated by the EU27 to demand concessions later on.  Over at the Spectator, James Forsyth has the view from the cabinet table, which is that Leo Varadkar is making a "dangerous gamble" with his demands that a hard border be avoided at all costs.

Again, without wishing to be a stuck record, the border issue is a real one. As it stands, the approach to Brexit set out at May's Lancaster House speech means that there will be border checks, either on the island of Ireland or in the Irish sea. As for Varadkar's "dangerous gamble", the thing is, the terms of Lancaster House mean that whatever happens, Ireland will lose out economically as it will trade less with its nearest trading partner and will trade less with Scotland, England and Wales. If the British government gets its way, this will also add to that economic shock the political repercussions of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Far from being a gamble, the political calculation for Varadkar is simple: unless the British government changes its Brexit objectives there is going to be economic damage to his country, but he can avoid the political damage to his career if he carries on the way he's going. The ham-fisted briefing and the poor approach to winning hearts and minds outside of the United Kingdom by the British government has only made that calculation easier.

Adding to that side of the problem, his government looks set to fall over the Garda scandal. The Irish police have been involved in a series of on-and-off scandals, including revelations that they falsified the number of breathalyser tests they were conducting by carrying them out on members of the force rather than the public. But that Varadkar's deputy, Frances Fitzgerald, may have known about the Garda's campaign to discredit a whistleblower, means that the opposition parties are calling for her to go.

Most importantly, Fianna Fáil, who struck a confidence-and-supply deal with Fine Gael following the inconclusive election result, have broken ranks. That means that there could be another election in the Republic before Christmas. But any British politician or commentator or believes that a Fianna Fáil government is going to be more inclined to gently acquiesce to a state of affairs that causes political and economic damage to the Republic should read a history book, or failing that, an Irish newspaper from time to time.

What is more likely is that an election, if it comes, will further raise the political price to be paid by whoever becomes taoiseach after the next election if they are seen to meekly submit to a Brexit that creates a hard border on the island of Ireland and weakens trading links between the United Kingdom and the Republic.

Having gone from science fiction to conspiracy theory, time is running out for the British government to come up with a fact-based approach to the border.

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.

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The Daily Mail’s reaction to Tom Daley’s baby is a reminder we’re not all equal yet

Columnist Richard Littlejohn seems to find it hard to cope with the idea of a gay couple having a moment of happiness.

Seeing as it’s LGBT+ history month, you would be forgiven for thinking that, just maybe, Britain could make it through 28 short days without a homophobic media controversy. But sadly, where optimism appears, the right-wing British press too often follows.

After the news that British Olympic diver Tom Daley and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance-Black are expecting their first child via a surrogate, radio station LBC quickly found itself in hot water. The station asked Twitter users whether, in their opinion, there is anything “sinister” about the woman carrying Daley and Lance-Black’s child being absent from the majority of media coverage. While there has long been a debate about the ethics of surrogacy, there are plenty of straight couples who have also turned to this option, and many nuances depending on the context, so the timing and wording of the question seemed pointed. LBC subsequently apologised for the “badly worded debate”.

But meanwhile, the printing presses were whirring.The main course to LBC’s starter, the Death Star to its Vadar and the hot dog to its mustard was springing into action. Otherwise known as: The Daily Mail.

Seemingly unable to cope with the idea of a gay couple having a moment of happiness, the paper employed its most un-lethal weapon, Richard Littlejohn, to put things right. In a piece entitled “Please don't pretend two dads is the new normal”, the columnist condemned the pair’s social media announcement, before expressing his discomfort at women being treated as “breeding machines” (again, note the sudden interest in the surrogacy debate). Next he takes aim at the media, lambasting them for covering this news just like any other baby announcement. Littlejohn then asks a series of erratic questions in quick succession. “Is Daley or his husband the father? Was it Bill, or was it Ben? Or neither of them?” Like a GSCE candidate who failed to revise for the exam, he soldiers on: “More pertinently, never mind Who's The Daddy? Who's The Mummy?”

By this point, you can practically picture Littlejohn, sweaty and misshapen, frothing at the mouth as he pummels his keyboard. Sensing that he’s out of material but still has half a page to fill, he haphazardly directs his hostility towards a trans woman who appeared in the news earlier this week, because why bother being homophobic when you can be transphobic too? Concluding the piece on a crescendo of awfulness, he “jokes” that he’s looking forward to the pictures of Daley breastfeeding, because apparently you can’t be a parent if you don’t breastfeed.

I suppose I should thank Littlejohn for proving, yet again, that the best way to transform male right-wing columnists into strident feminists is an opportunity to remind gay or trans people that they’ll never be seen as equals. Pre-emptively defending himself against accusations of homophobia within the article, Littlejohn claims he supported civil partnerships (but notably not same-sex marriages) long before “it was fashionable” to do so. Yet in 2004, the year that civil partnerships were introduced, Guardian columnist Marina Hyde dedicated an entire column to tracking his obsession with LGBT issues. “In the past year's Sun columns, Richard has referred 42 times to gays, 16 times to lesbians, 15 to homosexuals, eight to bisexuals, twice to 'homophobia' and six to being 'homophobic' (note his inverted commas), five times to cottaging, four to "gay sex in public toilets", three to poofs, twice to lesbianism, and once each to buggery, dykery, and poovery.” She writes, concluding: “This amounts to 104 references in 90-odd columns.”

The reaction to Littlejohn's latest piece was quick. Several organisations pulled out of advertising in the Daily Mail, a signal that the days of men like Littlejohn may soon be over. But whether published or not, this brand of homophobia is still prevalent in Britain. It appears when people claim not to have a problem with LGBT+ people, until one of their children comes out as gay or has a gay friend. It appears every time a person starts a sentence with “I’m not being homophobic, but…” It appears when gay parents, even those who have won Olympic medals and Academy Awards, are still only seen as a marginally better option that children being left to, as Littlejohn puts it, “rot in state run institutions where they face a better-than-average chance of being abused”.

As I suspect Littlejohn knows, no one is claiming that two dads is the new normal. Two gay parents is still a relatively new image for media and the public to digest, which has enabled this “debate” to happen. When 58 per cent of gay men are too afraid to hold hands with a partner in public, the idea that gay relationships are accepted enough to be considered anywhere close the “new normal” is ridiculous.

Yet Daley and Lance-Black’s announcement has revealed that, while homophobia is still mainstream enough to make it on to major platforms in the UK, it does not go unchallenged. We might not know what the tomorrow’s “normal” will be, but relics like Littlejohn represent the very worst of the past.