Britain’s divorce from the EU is approaching its Westminster endgame. With a Brexit deal agreed between both sets of negotiators in Brussels, Theresa May’s cabinet will meet tomorrow afternoon to consider a draft of the withdrawal agreement. Ministers also will meet the Prime Minister individually this evening.
While we don’t yet know what the text of that agreement says, we do know what Brexiteer cabinet ministers don’t want to be in it: an Irish border backstop in the form of a “temporary” customs union that cannot be left unilaterally by the United Kingdom. The best that the EU will offer is a multilateral “review mechanism”, not a time limit or one-sided break clause.
We also know what the DUP will not accept: a backstop that only applies to Northern Ireland, or provisions within a UK-only backstop that apply to Northern Ireland alone. A customs union in and of itself won’t prevent a hard border, so the latter will be needed at the very least. By the DUP’s uncompromising logic, this is merely disingenuous new packaging for the same unacceptable reality.
Reports from Brussels suggest the deal will contravene both of those red lines. Just as important as the word “deal”, however, is “draft”: nothing will be finalised until it is signed off by the EU Council this month or next. If the shape of the agreement is as expected, we should also expect Cabinet resignations. May then faces a choice between ploughing heedlessly on with a deal that cannot win the support of her executive, to say nothing of the legislature, or returning to Brussels to beg for more concessions. Neither path looks likely to generate a happy outcome.