With one leap the UK has discarded the two pieces of fool’s gold Theresa May had relied upon to achieve Brexit without finalising the Irish dimension – the alternative arrangements and the backstop. The deal agreed on 17 October goes straight to final arrangements that retain Northern Ireland in the UK customs territory while making it an advance entry point into the EU single market. There is no longer a backstop ensuring no hard border in Ireland in perpetuity. |In theory (article 18 of the revised protocol), the Northern Ireland Assembly could in a two month window at the end of four years beyond the end of the transitional period opt to give two year’s notice to pull the province out of the new dispensation and back into an integral UK with its international frontiers. Ireland now has to rely on the political and practical unlikelihood of this, not on legal guarantees.
The final political leap, typical of the reckless political style of the Prime Minister, was to give up on the DUP and push for a ratifying vote in the Commons on super Saturday, 19 October, that seemed likely to be lost and require him to seek an extension of EU membership. This was the corollary of taking the sensible approach and detaching Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK to the extent necessary to reach a deal with Ireland and then the EU26.
Two aspects of the deal put the DUP in extreme difficulty. The Irish Sea border has been hardened in order that the intra-Ireland one can remain soft. In practice, there may be a very light-touch reinforcement of boundary procedures that to some extent exist already, but it is a symbolic blow to unionism. And the primary consent mechanism has been redefined to be a majority of the Assembly and not the cross-community consent carefully crafted in the Good Friday Agreement. With the bridgehead of parties not emerging from the two traditional communities expanding (currently Alliance and the Greens) the DUP could see themselves back where they started as a hard-line minority.
The DUP have confirmed that they will not support the deal in the Commons. And on the other front the minimally-revised Political Declaration pulls the UK further away from the single market and so cements Labour opposition also. The phrase on ‘having a trading relationship on goods that is as close as possible’ (old para 20) is replaced by ‘an ambitious trading relationship on goods on the basis of a Free Trade Area’ (new para 19). The phrase ‘a spectrum of different outcomes’ on customs controls (old para 28) is omitted in new para 26. The paragraph on a level playing field is expanded (old 79, new 77) to a Labour-unfriendly call for a ‘robust and comprehensive framework for competition and state aid control that prevents undue distortion of trade and competition’.
Boris’s two days in the Brussels sun have been achieved in the knowledge of likely nemesis at the weekend. But would that matter? If he can detach the great majority of the European Research Group Conservatives from the DUP he will be well set-up for a general election, in huge contrast to Theresa May. Even before her Withdrawal Agreement 1 was put to a vote she has lost the public confidence of a third of MPs and there was a consensus among the rest that her weak and unstable leadership and poor campaigning skills made an election to gain a majority for her deal – the obvious next step - impossible.
Now ‘get Brexit done slightly late’ is likely to be the basis for an election campaign. From what we know about movements in the Labour and Liberal Democrat vote since 2017 there is a decent chance that a vote share even short of 40% could secure a Conservative majority loyal to the leader and get the deal though. That is why there will be - until it is too late - interest in a second referendum to raise the bar for Brexit to 50%.