Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
11 December 2017

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

There may be trouble ahead for the Prime Minister.

By Stephen Bush

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. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Content from our partners
Railways must adapt to how we live now
“I learn something new on every trip"
How data can help revive our high streets in the age of online shopping