Theresa May's promises on Northern Ireland can only be kept with a soft Brexit

There may be trouble ahead for the Prime Minister.

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Theresa May has just set out the terms of her accord with Jean-Claude Juncker as she sees them in the House of Commons, or, at least, has set out the terms as she believes necessary to keep the Conservative show on the road.

Even a harsh marker, however, would struggle to find fault with her account of what the agreement says and means. It was perhaps unwise to move so quickly from the matter that the United Kingdom’s payment of its existing liabilities to the subject of the future trade deal with the European Union, as that feeds two ideas that are unhelpful to the PM. The first is the Remainer meme that we are “paying for Brexit”. We’re not: we are paying what we agreed to pay before leaving and towards pooled schemes like pensions. It is not a new cost.

But the more dangerous and widespread idea is the Brexiteer one that the so-called “divorce bill” has anything to do with the terms of the final trade deal. It does not. It’s an imperfect metaphor, but essentially the United Kingdom is leaving the restaurant early and has agreed to leave its share of the bill in order to get the EU27 to call its taxi. That doesn’t mean the United Kingdom won’t have to pay the cab fare or ultimately decide where it wants its ride home to end up.

The problem with not killing this idea is that it risks setting the costs of the eventual deal against the £40bn “price” of Brexit, not the objectives of the Brexit deal.

But the more interesting thing was the list of guarantees that May laid out: the United Kingdom out of the customs union and single market, no new barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, the continuation of the common travel agreement and no new barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Ultimately, these promises can only be reconciled with very close regulatory alignment to the European Union. Much depends on whether that conclusion occurs to May’s Brexit ultras. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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