Theresa May is trying to navigate two fears – but her approach will cause real problems

Even if the government can get enough votes to stave off no-deal, May’s successor could have cause to regret her latest statement. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The United Kingdom took another step closer to leaving the European Union without a deal, after a parliamentary statement by Theresa May which exacerbates rather than eases the stalemate between both sides.

The essential problem is that May is caught between two legitimate fears. The first is a legitimate fear on the part of the Irish government that any fallback for the Irish border with an in-built time limit or a guillotine, such as the break clause that May wants to insert, will not provide sufficient insurance to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. The second fear is among pro-Brexit Tory MPs, who fear that any indefinite temporary arrangement will become permanent. Both groups effectively hold a veto over the reaching of a UK-EU deal: Ireland can of course prevent a deal being reached between member states while Conservative parliamentarians can vote down a deal in Parliament if they vote against the government in sufficient numbers.

May acknowledged that the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland require an “insurance policy” as far as the border goes, but then proposed a series of measures that would hole that insurance policy below the waterline: by giving a future British government a variety of ways to extricate itself from the process. Of course, the point of the backstop is to guarantee that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remains unchanged come what may: by definition if it contains ways that the United Kingdom can exit unilaterally, that no longer applies.

It may be that Downing Street is privately hoping that, just as in December 2017, when it signed up to an agreement on the Irish border which sharply limited the future shape of Brexit but it took until July of this year for any pro-Brexit Conservative MP to notice what had been agreed to, that loud rhetoric will allow the government space to make significant concessions. (One possible way forward: a break clause that the United Kingdom can only use with the agreement of the Irish government or some other kind of double lock that makes it functionally useless.) Indeed, some senior Conservatives believe that what went wrong in July 2018 was that the aggressive briefing beforehand about ministers being free to quit signalled to Brexiteers that a big climbdown was in the offing.

The problem, of course, is that the trust which meant May could sell the December agreement is now gone, and that no matter what May says now, her successor as Conservative leader is going to have to stand up late in 2020 and tell the House of Commons that the transition period May agreed to in 2019 wasn’t long enough, and that Brexit will have to be delayed further. Even if the government is able to get enough votes to stave off a no-deal Brexit now, May’s successor could have cause to regret her statement today.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman, the EI Political Commentator of the Year, and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.