28 Feb 2018

Brexit, Northern Ireland and John Major

In one sense nothing has changed. The U.K. agreed to the backstop position on N Ireland in December. The document shaken on then is titled a “Joint report” from the UK and the EU. The UK signed up to every paragraph including paragraph 50 which spelt out that if other agreements can’t be come to then Northern Ireland would stay in the EU Customs Union even as the rest of the UK left and it would stay subject to EU courts and other EU rules too.

But as one Cabinet minister told me today, that was signed up to “in the spirit of kicking the can down the road.” The EU believe the UK-proffered solutions look to them like a fanciful belief in technology which would invisibly monitor trade across the border or a blind faith that the EU will let the current customs relationship continue after the UK has left the EU Customs Union.

The can has morphed into a draft treaty with a dotted line for signature at the bottom (actually there isn’t one in the pdf but you get the point). That’s what made today so potentially incendiary. Many of the questions to Michel Barnier in the Brussels press conference focused on that and provoked him into some snippy responses insisting that he was not arrogantly intruding on the integrity of the UK. So why has this not properly exploded back home in Westminster?

December was a very bruising moment for No. 10. When Theresa May had to scurry back from Brussels as the DUP threatened to withdraw support from her government, Mrs May and her team learnt a lesson: the DUP (like most of us) don’t like nasty surprises.

This time round, the government has known for at least a week that the European Commission text was going to be as it was today and instead of concealing the text and keeping its fingers crossed it has been reaching out to the DUP to sooth nerves and reassure that a strident rejection of the EU language would come promptly from the Prime Minister.

When that came, at Prime Minister’s Questions, nerves were duly soothed. A parallel exercise started at the beginning of the week with the European Research Group of Tory MPs and seems to have worked well for No. 10 as well.

So those around Theresa May are now hopeful that they can kick the draft treaty down the tracks just as they did the original Joint Report on Article 50. There’s a lot of detail to be agreed in the 3 weeks available before the March European Council. If the EU27 decide Britain is stepping up the pace and engaging positively from their point of view, you could see the Transition Agreement shaken on at the European Council and this draft treaty effectively kicked down the can-laden road a bit.

Maybe to help with that process, the government quietly climbed down today on its attempt to restrict freedom of movement from the EU during the Transition period. Theresa May raised the idea, never very convincingly, only last month when she was talking to journalists on the plane to China. It spawned some excited and supportive headlines in pro-Brexit newspapers. History may judge it served little other obvious purpose.

Sir John Major chose today to wade into the Brexit quagmire. In a speech followed by questions and then separate extended broadcast interviews, Sir John said Theresa May should make the final “deal or no deal” vote on Brexit a “free vote,” unwhipped. Iain Duncan Smith said Sir John didn’t seem to be such a fan of unwhipped votes when he was pushing the Maastricht Treaty through Parliament.

Sir John raised the prospect of a second referendum, albeit without much enthusiasm. After years of being David Cameron’s regular authorised kite flyer for issues Mr Cameron wanted to float with the Tory Party, Sir John today found himself making criticisms of the Tory leader. He insisted that his fire was reserved for the life-long Brexiteers whose referendum promises had turned to ash. But a lot of what he said will have been seen in No. 10 as an attack on Mrs May’s stewardship of the Brexit issue.

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