As I have predicted for a long time, signs are definitely there that HM government understands the only way to avoid a hard border in Ireland is at the very, very least to remain in what will effectively be the Customs Union post-Brexit, semantics aside. I say the very least as that may not be enough, but it is certainly a bare minimum step to avoiding this problem. Everyone knows this. Actually, having said that, a lot of the media seems not to understand this still given some of the questions you hear on TV and radio. It has come to the point that I usually shut the source off when the subject turns to Brexit; the genuine or purposeful misunderstanding of the issues is too painful to listen to any longer.
There will be a vote on this in the Commons relatively shortly. Well, actually, there will be two votes on this, but only one of which the government will find “meaningful”. Now that parliament has taken back control, you see, some votes don’t actually count any longer. Let’s focus on the “meaningful” vote then: it will apparently be treated as a confidence issue. Or maybe not, there seems to be conflicting reports from Number 10 today about this. But let us say they really do intend to treat this as a confidence issue. What does that mean exactly? That Theresa May will resign if she loses the vote? Sorry for being blunt here, but so what? She’s going soon anyhow and everyone knows it. If the cost of this for Tory Remainers is that there has been a vote in the Commons keeping us in the Customs Union at the very least, how will the Brexiteers changing the leadership at that point help them much? Even Jacob Rees-Mogg would be bound by this vote. Would they treat it as a confidence vote as in, there has to be a general election? That would easily be the stupidest thing the Conservative and Unionist Party would have ever done in its long and storied history, so there’s no way that can be it.
No, here’s what’s really happening: May knows she is going to lose the vote on this in all likelihood. In fact, deep down she surely wants to lose it; it will mean that climbing down on the Customs Union issue wouldn’t technically be her fault. In order to get the credit for this, however, she needs to seem to the Brexiteers like she really, really desperately wants to win the vote. Everyone knows this as well – which is why no one will take the “confidence vote” threat seriously.
This morning, while I was trying to avoid the radio, I heard John Humphries (I think anyway) say that we need to leave the Customs Union “because that’s what people voted for in the referendum”. This demonstrates the problem with referenda: everyone switches to their own rules. A vote seems to become whatever the beholder wants it to be about. If Yes to AV had won the 2011, how fair do you think it would have been if the government had put in place the Single Transferrable Vote? Well, it could be argued that everyone campaigning for AV really wanted STV, so why not? Or how about if there is a second referendum on the European question, the people vote Remain, and that is taken as a signal that we need to join the Euro? It’s what the people voted for apparently!
No one applies these rules to representative democracy thankfully. If Corbyn ran on a Miliband-lite manifesto again, only this time he won and in his first week in office dismantled the military, nationalised all banks with no compensation to current ownership and instituted a 100% tax rate for anyone earning over £50k per annum, these same people who ignorantly crow about the public having voted to leave the Customs Union in the 2016 referendum would be screaming their heads off about how no one voted for all this.