Will the Brexit talks come unstuck over the Irish border? That’s the chatter at Westminster at any rate. Driving the unease is that Arlene Foster, the DUP’s leader, declined the opportunity to talk it over with Theresa May on the telephone yesterday; while in cabinet, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are digging in to resist any deal that involves regulatory alignment.
The question of what happens to the Irish border is inextricably linked with what the United Kingdom wants its future relationship to be – if the government’s Lancaster House objectives are followed to the letter, then that means a hard border, as the United Kingdom will have a different regulatory and customs regime which means that there will be some form of border checks, whether at sea or on the island of Ireland.
The PM has, whether through strategy or because she doesn’t like consulting people, managed to keep the question of the end state away from the cabinet and British politics generally. More significantly, she has kept it away from the Irish government, too, which is why they are trying to secure guarantees on the issue now rather than later on in the Brexit process. (Not to reopen old wounds, but if May had taken the chance to address the Irish Parliament, an invitation extended to only a handful of foreign politicians in the Republic’s history, she wouldn’t be in this mess now.)
Is May stuffed whatever happens, doomed to be forced into a no-deal scenario by either the demands of her party and the DUP or by the Irish government and the EU27? That might be how it seems at first glance, but look beneath the surface and the opportunity for a breakthrough is there.
The most significant intervention yesterday wasn’t from Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson herself – when she said that if regulatory alignment is the price that needs paying for a frictionless border, that alignment must extend to the whole of the United Kingdom – but from the DUP’s chief whip, Jeffrey Donaldson, when he tweeted Davidson’s statement approvingly.
The DUP’s parliamentary group isn’t a monolithic bloc but if you think Donaldson would tweet that without first knowing how it would be acceptable to his caucus and talking it through with the rest of the party leadership, I have a bridge to sell you in Ballymena. And yes, while the theatre of the two leaders not speaking is leading the headlines, Donaldson and his Conservative opposite number Julian Smith are meeting.
Pay attention to the exact wording of what Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s parliamentary leader, said yesterday: he didn’t oppose regulatory alignment in the areas necessary to avoid a hard border but opposed that alignment happening to Northern Ireland alone.
May’s position is weaker than it once was, but on this one she actually has considerable room for manoeuvre: she can do a deal involving regulatory alignment across the United Kingdom in the areas necessary to secure a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which she could pass using a combination of Conservative and Labour votes. It is true that the number of Brexit irreconcilables in the Tory party is big enough to trigger a confidence vote in May’s leadership of the party – but it is also true that they aren’t big enough to secure victory in a confidence vote in May’s leadership.
So, despite her weakened state, what happens next is still very much the Prime Minister’s choice. If the Brexit talks collapse at this point, it won’t be the fault of the DUP or Brussels: but hers.