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29 November 2017

Theresa May’s £50bn Brexit promise doesn’t mean she’s home and dry

An eruption looks inevitable – but when will it come?

By Stephen Bush

What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a British concession in the Brexit talks? Yes, according to both the FT and the Telegraph, who have got the scoop that the government has promised to settle its outstanding liabilities in full: a cool £40-£50bn depending on the final figures. (The sides haven’t ever been haggling over numbers but principles: x per cent of shared pension schemes deducted against y per cent of value of properties and assets bought while the United Kingdom was a member, effectively.)

With a workaround likely to be found on citizens’ rights, that “only” leaves the question of the Irish border. The problem there is more intractable – the British government’s Brexit objectives compel a hard border because we will have different regulatory and customs standards if we leave the customs union and pursue regulatory divergence – both of which, at least at present, are notionally the government’s approach.

It’s become fashionable to talk about the Irish border question as “difficult” or “intractable” in the British press. Actually the question is not difficult: if you have a customs and regulatory frontier you have a hard border. If you want to avoid it, you remain within the customs and regulatory orbit of the European Union.

It all comes back to the advice that civil servants gave Theresa May right at the beginning of the Brexit talks: start from the position of what you want the country and the economy to look like in 20 years’ time, and negotiate from there. If the United Kingdom wants to avoid a hard border with the Republic, then our Brexit position has to be shaped around that consideration, not the other way round.

But it may be that the haste with which May triggered Article 50 – again, something she was advised not to do – simply means that the solution to the border question ends up being the same as the solution to the debate over the sequencing of talks, or the outstanding liabilities: that the UK simply settles on the EU27’s terms after a great deal of shouting.

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The question is: when does the other shoe drop? If May can get to the end of the Brexit talks, a package full of concessions that leaves the UK with a very close relationship with the EU can definitely secure a majority of votes in the Commons. The difficulty is that it’s an open question as to whether it can secure a majority of Conservative votes, or if the party’s hard Leavers take fright and seek to remove May early. 

So far, the reaction from pro-Brexit MPs has been cautious but supportive: let’s see what the trade deal that the UK gets at the end of all of this looks like. An eruption looks inevitable – but when will it come?