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