Brexit Crunch Week: Day Five Update

19 October 2018 08:11

What was originally meant to be crunch week now feels more like a mouthful of lukewarm gravel. It is tempting to grab the Listerine, cleanse thoroughly, and forget the whole damn thing. Here’s why, peskily, it all still matters – a lot:

  • Why the long face? It’s only another EU summit that didn’t achieve anything: standard practice, surely? Not to this extent, no. At the weekend, the German press was excitedly reporting that a basic agreement on the terms of Brexit was finally within sight. But the Prime Minister has returned from Brussels with a bagful of nothing. The Irish border question – what to do about the commercial, cultural and social relationship between North and South after the UK leaves the EU – still looks like an unsolved Rubik’s Cube, a mess of green and orange.
  • Why does the Irish border matter so much? It’s important in and of itself because the present arrangement – a frictionless boundary between Northern Ireland and the Republic – is essential to the peace brokered in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But the ramifications of its status matter more generally – and very much. The so-called ‘backstop’ arrangement, which would keep either Northern Ireland alone or the whole of the UK in the EU Customs Union while a long-term solution is found, jangles the nerves of the Brexiteers. They see this as a pretext to keep the UK subject to the ‘vassalage’ of Brussels and Europe’s courts – a cunning plan to postpone indefinitely the glorious day when we ‘take back control’ (remember that?). They’re right to the extent that the backstop, for as long as it lasted, would certainly make the slogan ‘Brexit means Brexit’ even more fatuous than it already is. The UK would indeed still be part of one of the most important structures of the EU. So the problem is profound, not merely technical.
  • Buying time. Though she insists it is only an option that has been presented to her, May is undoubtedly open to the idea that – after we leave the EU on 29 March – the ‘implementation period’ should last an additional year (until the end of 2021 rather than the end of 2020). But this is still only a proposal and has not been agreed. Nor would more time necessarily resolve the outstanding questions that have thus far prevented an agreement: the potential dilemma of the Irish border has been apparent since David Cameron first proposed an In-Out referendum in 2013, but we are no closer, more than five years on, to an answer.
  • Tory turmoil. The corollary to this diplomatic impasse is that the Conservative Party is now in a state that resembles nothing so much as a teenage sulk during a well-to-do dinner party. Precisely when Theresa May most needs her unruly tribe to behave itself, doors are being slammed, defiance is everywhere, and nobody gives a damn about her embarrassment. Johnny Mercer, the highly-regarded Plymouth Moor View MP, describes the government he notionally supports as a ‘shit show’ and admits that ‘we’re in a position now where people are beginning to ridicule us’. It is no surprise that Jacob Rees-Mogg is self-righteously indignant about the prospective sell-out of Britannia – when is he not? What should worry the PM much more is the explicit complaint of Nick Boles, one of the architects of Conservative modernisation and a reliably thoughtful contributor to internal party debate, that she is ‘losing the confidence now of colleagues of all shades of opinion, people who have been supportive of her throughout this process’ and that his fellow Tories were ‘close to despair at the state of this negotiation’. As anyone who remembers the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 can attest, it is when such talk becomes unguarded and overt – and when moderate figures start to speak openly about the depth of a political crisis – that a PM’s chances of survival get much slimmer.
  • So will May survive? This has been a serious question ever since the exit poll released at 10pm on 8 June 2017 showed that she had lost the Tory majority in the snap general election she was meant to win by a landslide. She hangs on only because the Tories are frightened that a leadership contest would make Brexit even harder – absorbing months of political activity that nobody can spare and yielding a successor who might be even worse. For this reason, the PM keeps winning a daily reprieve – just. But her position this weekend is more precarious than it has ever been, and her rivals are all out on manoeuvres with varying degrees of discretion.
  • The People’s Vote. If Crunch Week has a single lesson, it is that the political class, as presently configured, is incapable of delivering a sensible deal. When the most imaginative offer on the table is to extend the negotiating period a bit longer, it’s time to ask whether the problem is more fundamental. If you still need persuading of the need for a fresh referendum, watch our Vodcast with Alastair Campbell and read our launch editorial on the urgent need for a new vote.

Well done to all those survivors who stuck out Crunch Week to the bitter end. DRUGSTORE CULTURE will be at the People’s Vote march in central London tomorrow, which starts at Park Lane at noon. See you there.