Why a Brexit deal could be impossible for Theresa May to reach

The concessions the Prime Minister must make to secure an agreement make it more likely parliament - or the Conservative Party - will defeat her. 

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Nineteen months have passed since the UK triggered Article 50 - and just a few remain before a Brexit deal is required - but there is still no sense of an ending. The Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab today met Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to inform him that divisions on the UK side made an agreement currently impossible. Talks have now been put on hold and few expect meaningful progress at Wednesday's summit. 

Worse, the problem is not merely one of time but substance: the Irish border. Theresa May, in common with the Leave campaign, has vowed to avoid a hard border either between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, or on the island of Ireland. But the EU’s current solution - UK membership of the customs union until a viable alternative is devised (“the backstop”) - remains politically unacceptable to May.

Tory Brexiteers fear the UK being locked into a permanent customs union - denying it the right to strike free trade deals with other countries (recall, for instance, that income tax was a “temporary measure” introduced in 1799 to cover the cost to Britain of the Napoleonic Wars). The EU retorts that a time-limited backstop - as demanded by Leave cabinet ministers (who are busy briefing resignation threats) - is no backstop at all.

In addition, the DUP, on whom May depends for her parliamentary majority, will not accept any divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (under the current proposal, Northern Ireland would remain in the single market for goods). Brexiteer dreams of “Empire 2.0” - a swashbuckling Britannia striking trade deals with the Anglosphere - are being thwarted by the legacy of Empire 1.0: the Irish border.

The problem for May is simply put: the steps required to reach a deal with the EU make it simultaneously less likely that she will secure parliamentary approval. Only six Tory or DUP MPs need rebel against the government for the Prime Minister’s majority of 12 to be eradicated. Though some Labour Brexiteers and “Releavers” (Remain MPs in Leave seats) would vote for any deal, they may not do so in the numbers May requires.

In the absence of a political deus ex machina, the UK is heading for a crisis that could result in one or more of the following: a Conservative leadership election (following a no confidence vote in Theresa May), a new general election, a new Brexit referendum or a no-deal Brexit (which would represent the greatest failure of statecraft in post-war European history).

Among some commentators, there is still an optimistic assumption that all this is mere shadow boxing and that a deal will be done at the “eleventh hour” - in time-honoured EU tradition. They may yet be proved right; as the UK approaches the cliff-edge (29 March 2019), one side may eventually give way.

But Brexit is entirely distinct from any previous negotiation. No member state has previously sought to leave the EU and, faced with nationalist insurgencies, Brussels is determined not to grant Britain special treatment. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, is far from alone in believing that the UK must not be granted any of the privileges of membership without the commensurate costs. 

Significant parliamentary opposition to a no-deal Brexit - and the UK’s lack of preparation - may prevent this outcome - but it would be complacent to assume as much. The consensus view remains that a deal will be done - but the consensus view was also that the UK would vote Remain and that Hillary Clinton would become US president.

In the meantime, Brexit remains what it has always been: a long and expensive method of teaching Britain that it already enjoyed the best model: EU membership.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.