There is said to be cabinet “unease” around the latest May proposal for dealing with the backstop issue the UK seemingly unwittingly signed up to in December 2017. Namely, that until a super-whizz bang trade deal between the UK and the EU can be agreed and implemented, the UK essentially stays in the Customs Union. This is subject to the usual semantics that pervades and is in some ways the very essence of Brexit: it will be called a “temporary customs arrangement” or some such thing, but will de facto mean we remain inside the CU. Again, until there is a trade agreement that also solves the NI issue for both sides, also probably known as never. Or better still, until some government in the relatively near future decides the whole thing is unsustainable and we re-join the EU, almost certainly at that point on much worse terms.
Plenty of people are complaining about the situation without offering any genuine solutions. The DUP are at it again, saying that while they don’t want to bring down the government, they wouldn’t mind it too much if the Tories had a change of leadership. While the DUP openly saying all this is newsworthy, as ever with Brexit related matters it is worth looking at the detail. One, the DUP can’t technically “bring the government down” in any meaningful sense; they can vote against the budget and turn the government into a zombie, unable to pass any legislation, thus making a new general election politically difficult to avoid. The DUP could certainly torpedo May’s Brexit deal, if one emerges, if there aren’t MPs from the opposition benches willing to vote for it, or at least abstain. But they cannot bring down the government.
Nor do they have any actual say in who the leader of the Conservative party is at any given time – although credit to them for trying on this one. Much more significant to the prime minister than anything a DUP spokesperson wants to say on record is how certain key members of the Cabinet respond to the latest backstop idea. Leadsom and McVey she could lose without breaking a sweat – Gove would be much more tricky, and Hunt would be really bad for her. Having said all that, let’s just say for argument’s sake that Hunt stomps off over the backstop proposals. May isn’t going to step down over that, so what actually happens next? Almost certainly nothing. We get a new Foreign Secretary, a Brexiteer sans leadership ambitions who will be happy to shut their mouth for the sake of inhabiting one of the four major roles of government for a while. I still can’t see the party bringing her down, which is what really matters.
The idea of the backstop applying to all of the UK, keeping the country inside of the Customs Union for the foreseeable future, was always the inevitable end point of May’s negotiation with the Commission. It has been painfully obvious for a very long time, particularly since last December when May essentially agreed to do this in writing. The prime minister is now apparently due to give another one of her speeches on the state of Brexit, this one no doubt denying in the strongest terms possible that she is about to sign the UK up to the Customs Union forever, with some added guff about “getting tough” with the Commission. This is more of the same – talking tough and then rolling over. The only pertinent question is why the Brexiteers seem to keep the faith each and every time.