The Irish border question shows the government is living in a Brexit fantasy world

It cannot be overstated enough that, collectively, Conservative MPs have ruled out all real world options.

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How do you solve a problem like the Irish border? It's the question that Brexiteers can't avoid tackling.

Bluntly, if you have divergence on goods, agriculture and many other regulatory areas you have to have some form of customs checks. And while those checks might largely be done via camera or – let's give the Brexiteers the benefit of the doubt – new technologies like drones or old ones like Zeppelins, the nature of customs checks is that you have to have customs officials who will have to go out and enforce those rules.

For all that those in Westminster talk about the conflict in Northern Ireland as a “finished” issue, there are still occasional acts of terrorist violence. On the border, signs are regularly defaced, and occasionally shot at. Whichever customs apparatus is put on the border, it will come under attack: whether from a drunken idiot throwing a brick or letting off a shot, or a deliberate attack. And so, at some point, will customs officials.

Then it's a question of what you do next. Do you send someone to protect the cameras or the officials? Are they armed? Are they local? What happens when those people are attacked? Although the ending of the customs frontier – when the customs union came into force in 1992 – did not end the militarized frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and restoring it won't bring it back overnight, it does mean re-opening that wound.

The Conservatives have said they don't want a hard border, and neither does the EU27. (More importantly, it is unlikely that any Irish government will be able to avoid vetoing any deal that creates a hard border.)  There are several ways to avoid a customs frontier on the island of Ireland. The bare minimum, one that the Guardian reveals will be set out in the EU27's negotiating objectives, is for Northern Ireland to remain de facto in the single market and customs union and for the border to move to the Irish Sea. That is unacceptable to the bulk of Conservative MPs and, of course, to the DUP. If you want to avoid a new border in the Irish Sea, then the rest of the United Kingdom has to follow Northern Ireland in remaining in large parts of the single market and the customs union. That is unacceptable to a large number of Conservative MPs too.

The government likes to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of living in a fantasy world, but it really cannot be overstated enough that, collectively, Conservative MPs have ruled out all of the real world options: they don't want a hard border, they don't want a unique customs and regulatory arrangement for Northern Ireland, they don't want customs and regulatory alignment for the whole of the United Kingdom, and they certainly don't want to remain in the EU.

It comes back to the big problem of Brexit: the governing party wants it very badly in theory, but recoils from it in practice, preferring to live in a series of fantasies. They – and unfortunately everyone else who lives in this country – may be on course for a very painful awakening when the Article 50 clocks reaches zero.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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