Politics 22 November 2018 | 16:20

Brexit Deal-Watch 7: Ambiguous? Yes, but pointlessly so

22 November 2018 16:20

Has the phrase ‘constructive ambiguity’ ever been more resonant? Those who remember the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland are familiar with this notion: the deliberately vague use of language in order to bind those in dispute into a process, in the hope that they will get used to negotiation and, as time passes, resolve their differences.

To a conspicuous extent, this is the dream that binds together the 26-page political deal that has today been issued by the UK and Brussels. The document is an inventory of good intentions, aspirations and postponed decisions – full of phrases such as ‘should agree’, ‘appropriate arrangements’, ‘agree to consider conditions for’ and ‘consider addressing’. Some of its conclusions are so bland that you wonder why the drafters bothered to include them. For instance: ‘The Parties should encourage civil society dialogue.’ Well, yes. Was it ever likely that they would dissuade it?

In the Commons, Theresa May is already making much of the fact that the agreement envisages the possibility that there will be a technological solution to the Irish border question – and that the now-notorious ‘backstop’ (which would keep the entire UK in the EU Customs Union until the issue was resolved). But Brexiteers are already crying ‘foul’ over the absence of the word ‘frictionless’ in the passages concerning future trade arrangements. They do not accept the Prime Minister’s assurances that the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice would be ended by the overall deal – and they are right.

There are also subtle but important shifts of language. Those who are concerned about the NHS post-Brexit – which is to say, pretty much everybody – should note that May’s pledge that she would aim for ‘associate membership’ of the European Medicines Agency has been downgraded to a determination to ‘explore the possibility of declaration.’ In diplomatic terms, there is a world of difference between the two.

I have reached the firm conclusion in the past fortnight that May hopes to bore us all into accepting her deal. She will simply keep going, like the world’s dreariest steamroller, until everyone else stumbles or capitulates. And to be fair she seems to have seen off the European Research Group’s backbench coup led by Jacob Rees-Mogg – at least for now.

But stamina and a capacity to withstand tedium will still not be enough, I think. The Tory whips are already hard at work, promising Remainers and Leavers alike that this is the best deal that they will get, that a no-deal exit is unthinkable and that the Government’s collapse will only expedite Jeremy Corbyn’s arrival in Number Ten. But the mood in Westminster is extraordinarily bitter, jaded, cynical. There is no predisposition to set aside differences, make the best of things, soldier on.

On the eve of the festive season, Parliament is a crucible of anger and resentment, full of factions that, for all sorts of reasons, feel betrayed, misrepresented or otherwise furious. I still cannot see, arithmetically, how this deal will get through the Commons. And if it fails, what then?

PS Here’s my column from yesterday’s London Evening Standard on the unexpected upside of the Brexit crisis – the abrupt reality check that has at least interrupted the long post-truth process.