Wednesday 6 February 2019

A Special Place in Hell

Unwise his comments may be from the standpoint of diplomatic protocol, it's difficult to disagree with Donald Tusk. There should be a special place for Brexiteers who lied, peddled racist politics, and hitched themselves to the Leave bandwagon for entirely selfish reasons. Space must also be reserved on the damnation list for the former Prime Minister for failing to order any contingency planning in case Leave won the referendum. And when we think about the current occupant of the highest office? Oh boy.

Of course, the Brexiteers love it when any European politician or bureaucrat goes off on one about Brexit. They take up the comments and spin themselves and plucky old Britain as hard done to by the nasty foreigner in the hope it plays well with what they consider to be "the country". The always absurd Andrea Leadsom demanded an apology from Tusk, and Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted some bollocks about St Thomas Aquinas. This will be followed by outraged editorials (my money's on the Express to produce the most frothing), and a few pub bores and kippers are bound to get themselves in a lather about it all. Meanwhile most people are going to look on with bemusement and wondering when this whole Brexit mess is going to get sorted.

Someone else who benefits from Tusk's cuss is Theresa May. Never the most consistent of Prime Ministers, she lived up to her reputation of being somewhat elastic with her word during her speech to Northern Ireland businesses on Tuesday. Now, bear in mind what has happened in politics of late. May's deal went down to a historic defeat. Faced with the Scylla of caving in to the Brexiteers on the hard right, and the Charybdis of a sensible customs-union based Brexit that already commands the majority of the Commons, as ever May put her party interest first and whipped her troops into supporting a new negotiating stance that re-opens the Irish backstop. Keen Brexit watchers will recall that the backstop was entirely her own invention in the first place, but such is politics. And so May is going in to bat for putting a time limit on the insurance policy in case her government proves incapable of striking a trade deal with the EU. Except she's not. She has assured Northern Ireland business that the UK isn't leaving the EU without some permutation of a backstop to prevent the return of the hard border. Eh? In her own words:

There is no suggestion that we are not going to ensure that in the future there is provision for this – it has been called an insurance policy, the backstop – that ensures that if the future relationship is not in place by the end of the implementation period, there will be arrangements in place to ensure that we deliver no hard border.

This isn't what she signed on to when May renewed her alliance with the ERG. For them, moaning about the inviolability of the UK is just cover because they feel compelled to hide their true intentions. Offered concessions at the Brexit Select Committee around a legal guarantee that Britain would not be bound in perpetuity to the backstop agreement should it be triggered, Andrea Jenkyns and John Whittingdale rejected it out of hand. No deal remains their objective, and there's nothing Brussels can do to persuade them to come to an arrangement. If this is resolved, this wing of the ERG will find some other reason to oppose a deal.

Given May's equivocation over the compact they thought was signed and sealed, they're getting a taste of what Michel Barnier has put up with these last couple of years. And yet the gnashing and the whingeing has curiously absented itself. Are they biting their lips out of deference to May going to Brussels for negotiations? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Last week, it was continuity remain locked in a bitter dispute. This week's it's the Brexiteers' turn. As Alex Wickham reports, Tory party unity over the so-called Malthouse Compromise has frayed already. Central is the claim that a scheduled trip to Northern Ireland organised by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group (the outfit tasked to come up with a solution to the border issue) saw leading Brexiteers pull out because they were due to meet with civil servants, business and local politicians who would tell them what no deal means. It's interesting how power can never stomach its truth. They felt they were being stitched up, and so cancelled their flight yesterday afternoon. More interestingly for connoisseurs of Tory in-fighting, this is symptomatic of an internal ERG split on what concessions would be acceptable. Some, as per Jenkyns and Whittingdale are demanding the removal of a backstop entirely as a condition of their support because, you know, the risk of a return to violence and misery is a price worth paying for the ERG's tax haven fantasies. Others accept it but are on the time-limited wagon. What a shame. Or, as one Tory noted, "It is ironic that something supposed to overcome division within the Conservative Party has caused further division". Quite.

Don't know about you, but I can't get enough of the Tory party volatility. At the rate things are going, Theresa May could go into her meeting on Thursday with Jean-Claude Juncker promising to negotiate out the backstop, and reveal to the world how she's signed up to a full UK-wide customs union Brexit with a year-long extension to Article 50. To be honest, I doubt May fully knows what she's doing from one day to the next. But it doesn't matter for her. The shilly-shallying and the games playing, the scuttling backwards and forwards to Dublin and Brussels does achieve one thing: it keeps winding the clock down to when enough Tory and Labour MPs feel compelled to support her deal. We know her game, she knows her game, and she knows we know and we know she knows, but none of this is stopping the zombie-like resurrection of her deal and her steering of the country to the brink.

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