On Monday (4 December), briefings from both sides in the Brexit negotiations were confidently looking forward to announcing a deal on the phase one ‘divorce’ package.
Then, after UK Prime Minister Theresa May slipped out of a celebratory meeting in Brussels to take a call, it was all off. Instead, she gave a 49 second press conference and fled.
Confusion and delusion are the words that spring to mind about the Prime Minister’s conduct. How could she get into such a situation? How could the DUP tail wag the government dog at the very last minute?
But beyond the immediate drama and loss of face for Theresa May, there is an underlying problem.
Is there any kind of Brexit the Prime Minister can deliver? She put forward a ‘hard’ Brexit at the general election and was rebuffed by the electorate. She has now put forward a ‘softer’ Brexit, at least for Northern Ireland, and seen that rejected by the DUP and a few dozen of her own backbenchers. The rest of Europe is wondering what, if any, kind of deal she can deliver.
The internal contradictions of her own policy are coming home to roost. At her conference speech in October last year, she ruled out staying in the European single market or the customs union – yet maintained that there would be no hard border in Northern Ireland.
The rest of Europe was eager to hear how, if you turn that border into a customs border, you can avoid customs controls. In the end, glib talk of “innovative” high-tech solutions gave way to acceptance that, in essence, you can’t. Nor can you make it a regulatory border with divergent regulations on each side without practical consequences.
As UK shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said, “Fantasy met brutal reality”. May eventually conceded a solution that would in effect allow Northern Ireland to stay in the single market.
Within minutes, Scottish and Welsh Leaders and the Mayor of London asked for the same, to preserve jobs in their areas. If it can be done for one part of the UK, why not for others?
Which then begs the question, why not for the UK as a whole?
This would also be an answer to the DUP plea for Northern Ireland to have the same regulations as the rest of the UK. It would also allay the fears of businesses over costly customs checks and new tariff arrangements. And indeed some government ministers seemed to say just that, and envisage a Brexit with the whole UK aligning its market rules with the EU.
But such a ‘soft’ Brexit is not acceptable to the hard Brexiteers within the Tory party, who are already voicing their opposition to it.
Looks like the only Brexit the Tories can deliver is a cliff-edge departure from the EU with no agreement on anything at all.