Why is the exit deal that Theresa May has negotiated so unsatisfying to Brexiteers? The short answer is: because in June 2017 she lost her parliamentary majority and had to strike a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party to remain in office.
The DUP doesn’t want a Brexit that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, while no Irish political party would be able to survive as a viable political project if it signed up to an accord that put a hard border through the island of Ireland. The Irish government, as with all member states of the European Union, has a veto over the final trade agreement with the United Kingdom.
That means if you want a Brexit that allows the United Kingdom to diverge from the European Union, you have two options – you can have a negotiated exit that cleaves Britain away from the regulatory and customs orbit of the European Union but leaves Northern Ireland within it, or you have a negotiated exit which keeps the entirety of the United Kingdom within the regulatory orbit of the European Union. This Brexit could definitely win a majority among Conservative MPs and could probably would, I think, have been able to get a narrow majority in Parliament thanks to the support of the majority of the Labour Leavers and at least some pro-Europeans of all parties, due to a fear of no deal and the wrath of their own pro-Brexit constituents.
Although in public no Conservative MP will openly admit it, before the referendum and in private, many freely argue that there are already checks in the Irish Sea and that a few more won’t be the end of the world, while a majority go further, arguing that it has been the British government’s position that Northern Ireland is different from the rest of the United Kingdom since the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 and that it is therefore acceptable for Brexit to treat Northern Ireland differently.
But Theresa May cannot go for this Brexit – even though it is the only good-faith interpretation of how her various promises and objectives for Brexit before the 2017 election could be met – because if she did, the DUP would bring about the end of the Conservative government in short order.
That leaves one route to a Brexit where the United Kingdom has the ability to diverge significantly: a non-negotiated exit where the UK leaves without a deal. That is not acceptable to either of the majorities that matter as far as the British government’s Brexit strategy goes: it cannot command a majority of Conservative MPs or a majority in Parliament as a whole. It could still happen because Parliament has already voted to trigger Article 50, but it would almost certainly shatter the Conservative Party.
So what’s left that can pass the House of Commons and prevent new borders in the Irish Sea? A soft or Norway-style Brexit – a form of Brexit that Nick Timothy, formerly one of Theresa May’s co-chiefs of staff, declares false Brexit, in an article for the Telegraph in which he says that this week was the week that “the week that Brexit was finally killed”.
I know that looking for self-awareness from Nick Timothy is like looking for moral philosophy from a cow, but hang about: “the week that Brexit was finally killed” was the week of 18 May 2017: when Theresa May launched her manifesto, a politically toxic document that insulted the young, offended the elderly and alienated the middle-aged. The most damaging policy of all was that concerning social care: one authored by Nick Timothy, the object of concern to his co-chief, Fiona Hill, and the then health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
The damage that did to Theresa May’s popularity and to the Conservative campaign was decisive in the election result – which returned a Parliament which will only be able to agree a Norway-type Brexit. That is the clear and inescapable truth of every serious post-mortem of what happened to the Conservative Party in the final weeks of the campaign.
The reason why May can’t make this argument personally is that it means returning to the scene of the crime: telling Conservative MPs that not only did her maladroit conduct of the 2017 campaign cost them their majority and the careers of their colleagues and friends, but that it locks them into a Brexit trajectory in which the only available exits are ones that most Conservative MPs fear will be politically disastrous. But if Nick Timothy wants to identify the week that Brexit was “killed”, he should look to the past: and if he wants to know the culprit, he should look in the mirror.