Theresa May’s “victory” is an illusion – no agreement can be reached without the backstop

The only way for the Prime Minister to keep her promise is for the United Kingdom to leave the EU without a deal. 

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What did the United Kingdom vote for on 23 June 2016? Westminster’s most starry-eyed Brexiteers think that they know the answer: Canada, an open and mid-sized economy whose rules and regulations the European Union plays a minor but subordinate role in setting.

 That’s a version of Brexit that cannot be met while the United Kingdom remains within the customs and regulatory orbit of the EU, which is one reason why the backstop provision is unacceptable to them. The backstop means following European rules and regulations indefinitely after the UK has left, with the only choice for future British governments being whether the whole of the UK stays in sync with the EU or just Northern Ireland.

Although there are a handful of Conservative Leavers for whom the prospect of cutting the rest of the UK off from Northern Ireland is genuinely appalling, for most, their attachment to the union is secondary to freeing themselves from the EU.

That order of priorities has a long history. During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, staffers at Business for Britain, the Eurosceptic pressure group formed by Matthew Elliott as a dry run for the Leave campaign, told their supporters in parliament that they should take great care to avoid arguments in the referendum that would bind their hands during the forthcoming Brexit vote.

That’s partly why the DUP, without whom the Conservatives cannot remain in office, has undertaken to march in lockstep with the Tory parliamentary party’s most committed Brexiteers, the European Research Group (ERG). The DUP wants to prevent a situation where Leave ultras begin to see a united Ireland as a price worth paying for the right sort of Brexit.

To retain the support of both the DUP and ERG, Theresa May advocated that MPs vote to call for a fresh withdrawal deal between her government and the EU minus the backstop. Never mind that the backstop is the invention of her own government and a triumph of British diplomacy, or that there can be no deal without some form of backstop. For May, the cost of doing business is conceding to her hard Brexiteer flank.

On 29 January, MPs voted in support of amending May’s deal along those lines, but the Prime Minister’s “victory” is illusory because no agreement can be reached with the EU that will not include something functionally identical to the backstop as it stands. The only way for May to keep her promise is for the United Kingdom to leave the EU without a deal, which would result in shortages of food, medicine and other essential items.

That’s an eventuality that most MPs believe that Britain’s Leavers did not vote for and will not accept. As a result, although May herself opposed the measure, a narrow majority of MPs voted to deplore the idea of a no deal Brexit, though they also rejected concrete measures that would have reduced the prospect of an unnegotiated exit from the bloc by voting down amendments from Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservative Dominic Grieve.

The amendments were rebuffed thanks to an alliance between the majority of Conservative MPs and a minority of Labour MPs, who either voted against or merely refused to follow instructions from the leadership to vote for Cooper’s and Grieve’s motions. Why did they do it? Well, because they wanted to demonstrate to ardent Remainers in the Commons that there is no majority for their preferred way out. One shadow minister who broke the whip to abstain said that they and their colleagues were “tired of the bullshit” from supporters of a second referendum.

Though I am yet to encounter a Labour rebel who believes that Yvette Cooper is now supporting or would ever support a second referendum, they knew that a victory for her would have strengthened forces that they want to see flattened. Now that Cooper’s amendment is buried and with it, they hope, any serious talk of another referendum, they and the rest of the Labour Party can move on.

Jeremy Corbyn and his closest allies broadly agree, which is why Corbyn announced after Tuesday’s votes that he would open talks with Theresa May. The fear beforehand within Team Corbyn was that any move to settle Brexit short of cancelling it altogether would be treated as treachery: but now attention can turn to how best to
implement departure.

What would a well-implemented Brexit look like? Most Labour MPs agree that the real reason so many British people opted to leave the EU was their objection to the free movement of people. One MP recently told me that the only metric their constituents would use for whether Brexit had succeeded or failed would be whether the EU/EEA queue at border control became a thing of the past. But that is not compatible with the Brexit end state that the Labour leadership prefers: continuing membership of the European Economic Area and continued participation in a customs union.

The problem with any Brexit outcome is that Leave voters really did vote to become Canada. This is not because they envisaged a particular trade relationship with the EU, but because after the United Kingdom leaves it will, like Canada, end up having its rules and regulations set, whether de facto or de jure, by the regulatory behemoth adjacent to it and with which it does the bulk of its trade, and whose demands, whether they are reasonable or unreasonable, it must either accommodate or weather the terrible consequences.

Brexit will mean having a subordinate role to the European Union in perpetuity, with the only question being whether the price is really one that Leave voters are, in the long term, willing to pay.

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.

This article appears in the 01 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail