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15 January 2019

The Brexit backstop is a diplomatic coup for the government – but no one wants to buy it

The backstop reveals the central problem of Brexit: Remainers won’t thank the government for it and Leavers won’t be satisified. 

By Stephen Bush

One of the arguments that Conservative ministers have regularly made in the House, particularly committed Brexiteers like Geoffrey Cox and Michael Gove, is that the backstop – the provision designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland – is actually a very good deal for the United Kingdom.

And they’ve got a point. At the start of the Brexit negotiations, the government had two objectives: the first was to maintain the status quo on the Irish border, which helped to secure peace in Northern Ireland, and has been a cross-party aim of both major parties since 1985. The second was not to agree anything in the divorce talks that prejudiced the talks on the final free trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. And it had to achieve both in a way that could be signed by Theresa May’s opposite number in Ireland, Leo Varadkar, who, like May, has domestic politics of his own to contend with.

The two aims are necessarily in conflict. The only way for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland to remain unchanged after Brexit is for either Northern Ireland or the whole of the United Kingdom to remain part of the customs and regulatory orbit of the European Union. The simplest way to do that would be for the United Kingdom to remain part of the customs union and single market indefinitely.

So one way to guarantee the status quo is for the default position to be that, in the absence of agreement, the whole of the United Kingdom will remain in the single market and customs union, will continue to contribute to the European Union at its current level – in short, for nothing to change other than that the UK no longer has any direct control over the rules it follows. That arrangement wouldn’t have to be carved out of whole cloth and would solve the question of the border.

But this wouldn’t work for the United Kingdom because it would hugely incentivise the European Union not to reach an agreement as, come what may, Brexit would not cause an economic shock or a loss of access to UK markets. If the only downside risk to you in a negotiation is that if you don’t agree, then your negotiating opposite number becomes less powerful, you won’t negotiate.

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The backstop instead does make a small, Northern Ireland-shaped hole in the single market without membership fees and with a comparatively minor level of regulatory alignment. It incentivises both sides to reach an accord, because it violates the sanctity of the internal market on the EU side and because it has implications for the UK’s territorial integrity on the British side. 

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Unless you want to stay in the European Union either formally or de facto, as the only alternative to the backstop would do, it is a major diplomatic victory for the British and a coup for the civil service. The only intelligent case to oppose the backstop is if you either oppose Brexit and/or government policy towards Northern Ireland since 1985.

So why is that argument falling on deaf ears when Gove and Cox make it?

It is partly because Westminster is becoming increasingly clannish: there are very few politicians willing to support a Brexiteer speaking in favour of May’s deal, as most Remainers don’t want to praise a Leaver and most Leavers don’t like May’s deal.

It’s also because part of the reason why, from a policy perspective, the backstop is a big win for the British government is one that Conservative MPs and particularly Conservative-aligned think tankers privately acknowledge: it allows the United Kingdom to secure a more distant relationship with the European Union at any time, provided they can secure a Conservative government that isn’t reliant on the votes of Unionist MPs.

But just because few people want to acknowledge it doesn’t mean that it isn’t true – if you don’t like the backstop, your political interests are only ever going to be served by no Brexit at all or a Brexit in name only. The trouble for the government, though, is that this behaviour doesn’t end outside Westminster. Whatever Brexit outcome is negotiated, not enough Leavers will thank the Conservatives for it and too many Remainers will blame them.

Stable and enduring parliamentary majorities of the kind enjoyed by Tony Blair will continue to be very difficult asks, whoever the Conservative leader is.