John Downing: 'Only thing keeping May in situ is total confusion in Westminster – and it'll get worse before it gets better'
It will get far worse before it gets any better and the 11 weeks between now and the Brexit witching date of March 29 will be very fraught. The Irish Government has won many battles to minimise inevitable damage – but, almost three years on, this war is far from over.
Veteran politicians often talk about the value of time to allow for reflection and for tempers to cool. Over the seasonal holidays, it is clear embattled UK Prime Minister Theresa May was giving the whole farrago that is Brexit time to cool and, in hindsight, she clearly hoped things would look much better at the resumption.
But no. After just a few days back at work last week, the UK PM found the post-holiday ‘rhetoricometer’ was doing much the same handstands as it did after a very acrimonious month of December.
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You are forgiven if you feel as if you are drowning in Brexit. So, I’ll be brief and skim over some of those back-to-school questions on this most distressing topic, some of which you may by now be afraid to ask.
Brexit was narrowly passed by British voters on June 23, 2016. The UK national figure was 52pc Leave to 48pc Remain. EU-UK negotiations finally opened on March 29, 2017, fixing a two-year deadline, expiring on March 29 next, to put a Withdrawal Agreement in place.
Last year things dragged and a series of deadlines were missed in March, June and October. Finally, Mrs May cut a Withdrawal Agreement deal on November 25 with the other 27 EU leaders.
From a purely Irish standpoint, it was not as good as keeping the UK inside the EU. But it did several key things for Irish interests. Firstly, it ensured there would be no return of a hard Border in Ireland.
Secondly, it secured lucrative Irish-UK trade, because all of the UK, and not just Northern Ireland as originally mooted, would stay inside the EU customs area and stay close to EU single market product standards.
That would apply at least until January 2021 but signs were it very probably would last longer.
Meanwhile, things were set fair for longer-term EU-UK trade negotiations on a deal for a post-Brexit world.
We can only guess what it would be like and various models were mooted, like EU-Norway and EU-Canada, with a suite of add-on or delete modifications.
And yes, you rightly guessed it would take time to finally work out. The EU-Canada deal, for example, took seven years. But more optimistic pundits suggested the main thrust of it could be done in about two years, with more tricky sectoral deals straggling on for several more years.
For Ireland and the rest of the EU, it was making the best of a bad situation. But in London things had continued to be as divisive and acrimonious as could be.
Mrs May just cannot sell this deal. She had planned a vote in mid-December but had to cancel it because she was set to lose by a three-figure margin of MPs. Latest news is that she will try again on January 15 – and very probably lose.
She is looking for help from the EU, who are probably going to furnish some kind of additional stand-alone guarantees.
These will be to the effect that the backstop arrangements will always be temporary – though not given a specific expiry date – and that everyone wants a longer-term EU-UK post Brexit trade deal.
The view among Brussels diplomats is there is no point in furnishing any kind of letters of comfort to Mrs May ahead of this month’s vote.
But they might help win a second run at the vote – very possibly in mid-February. This would come as the UK MPs were staring at the economic carnage of a no-deal Brexit and money markets were battering sterling.
Granted, there is no majority among the 650 UK MPs for a no-deal Brexit which would wreak havoc.
The problem is that there is no clear majority for anything else either. By one calculation, up to a quarter of the UK parliament would go for another referendum. It is very unclear how we would get that far, even with an extension of deadlines.
And its outcome would be uncertain. A survey yesterday for the polling firm YouGov suggested 46pc in favour of Remain and 39pc backing Leave. It’s very far from a landslide reversal.
About one third of MPs would like to see the Article 50 Brexit process stalled – but that requires London to formally seek an extension and the unanimous approval of the other 27 member states.
EU approval for an extension would require a clear resolution plan and it’s impossible to see that emerging any time soon.
Finally, it’s fair to guess that about one third of MPs want a soft Brexit with an EU-UK relationship mimicking the EU Norway relationship.
The problem there is the UK would first have to accept Mrs May’s draft deal before that Norway scheme could be negotiated.
Clearly, the continuing anxiety for Ireland is the continuance of the Northern Ireland backstop amid all this lack of clarity. Yesterday, Mrs May told BBC presenter Andrew Marr that MPs were concerned the backstop could become permanent or indefinite.
“They need to know that it can be replaced if it’s put into place,” she said.
The British prime minister added that it is not intended to use the backstop at all – or at maximum for a temporary period.
Mr Marr put it to Mrs May that the Irish Government has said it won’t put up a hard Border and the DUP also said it doesn’t want one either. So, he asked: “Therefore, why does there need to be a backstop?”
Mrs May said the UK government did not want a hard border in Ireland. But wishing it away was not enough: “Actually a ‘no-border’ doesn’t happen simply because people sit around and say ‘well, we won’t have a border’.”
She said business needed guarantees – not aspirations. But as quickly, she was back on the political tight-rope insisting that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom.
So, cue more warnings from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who yet again called on Mrs May to stand firm in demanding that the EU changes its “poison” backstop provision on Ireland’s post-Brexit Border.
The DUP leader at Westminster, Nigel Dodds, said that since the EU appeared unwilling to change, it was the duty of the UK government to stand firm against the EU’s “bad deal”.
“The backstop remains the poison which makes any vote for the Withdrawal Agreement so toxic,” he said.
“The coming days will show if this government is made of the right stuff,” Mr Dodds added. Now there’s another key reason why Theresa May is in for a very tough couple of weeks – assuming she can continue at all.
Right now, her greatest asset for survival is the total confusion which pervades the air around the Westminster complex.
And as we have noted, things will get worse before they get better.
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