May’s er­ror is to rely on the DUP to leave the EU. It looks set to cost her dearly

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

It is an un­writ­ten rule of pol­i­tics in North­ern Ire­land that ev­ery­thing pro­ceeds from the word “no”. The es­tab­lish­ment of trust in the di­a­logue that led even­tu­ally to the Good Fri­day agree­ment was a slow and metic­u­lous busi­ness. The Demo­cratic Union­ist party never en­dorsed that deal, which is rel­e­vant to the dif­fi­culty Theresa

May now has in per­suad­ing par­lia­ment to vote for any Brexit plan she might agree in Brus­sels. At the heart of the im­passe is a his­tor­i­cal fact that the leave cam­paign shame­fully be­lit­tled: the Good Fri­day agree­ment was pos­si­ble be­cause both the UK and the Repub­lic of Ire­land were EU mem­bers. Brexit picks at the seam of peace. Ar­lene Foster, DUP leader, is im­mune to ap­peals for com­pro­mise based on the sanc­tity of a treaty that her party re­jected. Her con­cern is that the prime min­is­ter ap­pears ready to con­cede cus­toms checks be­tween main­land Bri­tain and the is­land of Ire­land un­der “back­stop” ar­range­ments – the regime to op­er­ate in the ab­sence of a com­pre­hen­sive free-trade agree­ment. There is a le­gal duty to ex­am­ine cer­tain goods on their way into the sin­gle mar­ket once the UK is out­side it. The prime min­is­ter as­serts that this is aca­demic be­cause a fu­ture trade deal can be done in time. It is un­clear whether she re­ally be­lieves this. No one else does, least of all the DUP, which acts as if the union can­not sur­vive phy­tosan­i­tary in­spec­tion at Ir­ish Sea ports. In re­al­ity, the cause of pre­serv­ing the union was best served by vot­ing re­main in 2016 and is best served now by im­ple­ment­ing the soft­est pos­si­ble Brexit – or abort­ing it al­to­gether.

The case for press­ing ahead with Mrs May’s meth­ods is crum­bling. Jo John­son, the trans­port min­is­ter, yes­ter­day re­signed cit­ing as his rea­son the prime min­is­ter’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to present par­lia­ment with an in­tol­er­a­ble choice: a half-com­plete pack­age, worse than EU mem­ber­ship, or the chaos of exit with no deal at all. Mr John­son’s anal­y­sis on that point is right. His pro­posed rem­edy – invit­ing the pub­lic to re­visit the 2016 ref­er­en­dum de­ci­sion in the light of what has sub­se­quently been learned – is also more hon­ourable than the ap­proach pre­ferred by his el­der brother Boris, who re­signed ear­lier this year in pur­suit of guer­rilla at­tacks on the gov­ern­ment’s plan with no hint of vi­able al­ter­na­tives.

Mean­while, there are in­di­ca­tions a com­plete draft of the with­drawal agree­ment will be put to the cab­i­net early next week. If Brus­sels can be per­suaded it will work – a high hur­dle – Mrs May needs 320 MPs to get it through the Com­mons. That is an even higher hur­dle. If the DUP is against her, she can­not man­age it even if ev­ery sin­gle Tory is on her side. A mys­ti­fy­ing as­pect of this is the half-hearted ef­fort Mrs May has made to woo op­po­nents. It has long been ap­par­ent that the path to a Brexit ma­jor­ity in­volves Labour MPs. Only a hand­ful are staunch Euroscep­tic but dozens feel duty bound to hon­our the ref­er­en­dum re­sult or to sat­isfy pro-leave sen­ti­ment in their con­stituen­cies. At Labour con­fer­ence this year, Jeremy Cor­byn of­fered to sup­port a “sen­si­ble deal” that in­cluded a cus­toms union, no hard bor­der in Ire­land, plus en­vi­ron­men­tal and worker pro­tec­tions. Mrs May no doubt sus­pects Mr Cor­byn of play­ing pol­i­tics, feint­ing bi­par­ti­san­ship, more in­ter­ested in bring­ing gov­ern­ment down than in bail­ing it out. That may be so, but Mrs May could also have dab­bled in pub­lic bridge-build­ing. Had she con­spic­u­ously taken the Labour leader up on his of­fer, would his bluff have been called? Many op­po­si­tion MPs might have been tempted by the in­vi­ta­tion to fa­cil­i­tate a softer Brexit if they felt Mrs May was of­fer­ing se­ri­ous part­ner­ship.

But the prime min­is­ter has al­ways lacked the strate­gic com­pe­tence and imag­i­na­tion to as­sem­ble a par­lia­men­tary coali­tion more durable – and more demo­crat­i­cally rep­re­sen­ta­tive – than her frag­ile and brit­tle al­liance with the DUP. As a re­sult, it is hard for her to get Brexit through the Com­mons and al­most im­pos­si­ble for her to do it with the kind of ma­jor­ity that be­stows mo­ral au­thor­ity on the out­come. Mrs May has had many op­por­tu­ni­ties for con­cil­i­a­tion with MPs who sup­port a moder­ate Brexit path. In­stead, she opted for the hard route and reliance on a party that al­ways says “no”. It is a choice she might soon come to re­gret.

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