Irish fiasco raises chance of stopping Brexit

by Hugo Dixon | 05.12.2017

We can’t get a deal with the EU if we erect a hard border in Ireland. But Theresa May can’t keep the DUP and her own Tory backbenchers onside if she erects a sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

We should avoid both a land border and a sea one – for political and economic reasons. A land border would undermine the Good Friday agreement that has kept the peace in Northern Ireland, and damage its economy too. But a sea border would have a similar effect – infuriating unionists and hurting the economy.

The only way of entirely avoiding both borders is to keep the whole of the UK in the EU’s single market and customs union. Quite apart from solving the Irish question, that would also be good for British jobs and investment – as well as jobs and investment in the Republic of Ireland, which does a huge amount of trade with Great Britain.

David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said today in Parliament that the government was proposing “regulatory alignment” between the whole of the UK and the EU after Brexit, while at the same time saying that we wouldn’t have “exactly the same rules”. Quite how this is supposed to work isn’t clear. But it would not be as clean cut as staying in both the single market and customs union.

But if we are going to stay in the single market and customs union, it’s mad to quit the EU. Doing so would turn us from being a rule-maker into a rule-taker. How is that taking back control? At present, we are one of the EU’s most influential members, on the winning side in the council of ministers 98% of the time.

But, of course, to stop Brexit we’ll first need a full political crisis. The good news is that this is now quite likely.

The prime minister had a bad hand. The remorseless logic of Brexit was to destabilise Northern Ireland. But she has played a bad hand badly – and risks tearing the whole United Kingdom apart. The Tories’ official name – the Conservative and Unionist party – is becoming a bad joke.

Didn’t May realise she was storing up trouble when she got into bed with the DUP in the first place? Why didn’t she start a charm offensive with Dublin as soon as she became prime minister rather than allowing the problem to fester? And what did she think she was doing offering Brussels a deal to keep Northern Ireland in “regulatory alignment” with the EU without squaring it with the DUP and her own backbenchers?

This cack-handedness hasn’t just thrown Northern Ireland into turmoil. Nicola Sturgeon has used the crisis to ram home her argument that Scotland should stay in the single market too – an idea that would further fragment the UK.

It’s hard to see May being able to agree the outline of a divorce deal at next week’s European summit and with it an agreement to move on to discussing our future relationship with the EU. If the talks remain deadlocked, hardline Brexiters in her party will then push for us to quit the negotiating table.

But that would make a bad situation even worse. Businesses, many of which are already on a virtual investment strike, would shift activities across the Channel and Irish Sea so they can keep frictionless access to the single market. Financial markets would go into a spin.

It’s doubtful May could push such a kamikaze policy through her own cabinet, many of whom such as Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd were strong supporters of Remain in last year’s referendum.

The prime minister is like a cat that has used up her nine lives. But if she quits, all hell could break loose in the Tory party. Nobody will be able to come up with a Brexit plan that the party can rally behind. The chances of an early election would rise.

The spotlight would then turn to Labour. What Brexit policy would it adopt going into an election? The logic of Northern Ireland is already driving it towards accepting permanent membership of the single market and customs union. Both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell care deeply about the peace process.

Pulling out of the single market and customs union would also consign the UK to the slow lane of the global economy. That means low investment, low productivity and low pay. Multinationals may be able to shift their production offshore. But how is that in the interest of working people?

If Labour does embrace the single market and customs union, why not then go the whole hog and stay in the EU – or at least say it would negotiate the best deal it could get and then put it to the British people in a new referendum? The weekend’s Survation poll showed there’s now a clear majority in favour of such a referendum. So this could be a vote winner.

The Tories’ incompetent ideological Brexit may lead us to disaster. But it also offers increased hope of stopping the whole mad escapade. It’s not too late.

This article has been updated shortly after publication to include David Davis’ comments in Parliament.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe