With ministers and DUP up in arms, May has no good options
As Theresa May gets closer to clinching a deal with the EU, her chances of ramming it through Cabinet and Parliament get slimmer. She faces a near-impossible Trinity – satisfying hardline Brexiters, the DUP and pro-European Tories all simultaneously. If she buckles to the demands of one group, she loses the support of one or more of the others.
The prime minister’s current proposal – to keep the entire UK in a customs union with the EU indefinitely while also agreeing to regulatory checks in the Irish Sea – has angered two of these groups: the hardliners and the DUP, without whose 10 MPs the government doesn’t have a majority. But it shouldn’t please patriotic pro-Europeans either – as it will damage our power, prosperity and peace.
When May put the plan to her Brexit “war” Cabinet yesterday – several ministers including Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Liam Fox expressed concerns, according to The Telegraph. Three Cabinet ministers who weren’t invited to the meeting – Penny Mordaunt, Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom – are said to be threatening to resign.
Meanwhile, Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, has damned what she describes as a “one-way turnstile from Northern Ireland into the rest of the United Kingdom” and effectively called on Cabinet ministers to block the prime minister’s plans. The DUP is threatening to pull down the government if it doesn’t get its way.
So, what will May do? Her main options are to press on regardless, back down to pressure from the DUP and hardliners in her Cabinet or play for time.
If she presses on, she may hope her Cabinet critics will crack. She may also hope to buy off the DUP with another bung. Indeed, she is preparing to hand tens of millions more to the DUP to buy their support – on top of the GBP 1 billion she gave them to back her government in the first place, according to The Sun. But a DUP source told The Telegraph: “Money to sip poison to the Union slowly isn’t exactly a great offer.”
If pressing on regardless seems hopeless, backing down to pressure from Tory hardliners is equally desperate. They say they want a “Canada-style” deal. But the EU will only give the UK such a deal – which would be even worse for our prosperity than the miserable one the prime minister wants – if we agree to keep the land border in Ireland open in all circumstances. That would mean an even harder sea border. The chance of getting the DUP to accept that is virtually nil.
In the circumstances, May seems to be reverting to type and trying to avoid taking a decision. She wasted months during the spring and early summer before she finally brought things to a head at Chequers in July. Downing Street is now saying she would “never agree” to a permanent customs union and any such agreement would be “time limited”.
The problem is that the EU will not agree to any deal to keep the Irish land border open that is time limited. So, if the prime minister is now going back on what she was indicating she could accept, she won’t have a deal. The EU may even decide to cancel a special Brexit summit penciled in for next month on the grounds that there hasn’t been the “decisive progress” they are looking for.
If so, May’s back will be really to the wall – and she will have to make yet more concessions in the final moments of the talks to avoid taking the country over a precipice.
The prime minister has no good way forward. Whatever she does, the only sensible approach will be to ask the people whether they agree – or would prefer to stay in the EU after all. Hugo Dixon is the chairman and editor-in-chief of https://infacts.org/