Let’s unpick what happened yesterday. The British prime minister travelled to Brussels to have lunch with the president of the European Commission, over which it was planned that they would finalise the wordings that would allow the trade talks between the UK and the EU to move to the next stage. The big issue that was left to be resolved was how to avoid a hard border between the north and south of Ireland. Everyone involved said they wanted in theory to avoid a hard border – the trick was how this could be practically achieved, with the UK’s stated desire to leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union a problem in this regard.
However, a draft wording seemed to be agreed around the time the lunch began. The UK government clearly gave signals that it was ready sign off on enough to allow the announcement of the next stage of trade talks to go forward – the Irish Taoiseach called a press conference for mid-afternoon, and Juncker and May were to give one later on. All the signals were that a deal was done.
Then the DUP gave a press conference saying they weren’t happy about it. Theresa May gave Arlene Foster a call. Suddenly, it seemed the deal was off.
There are several deep national embarrassments involved in all of this. One, it appears that despite relying on the ten DUP MPs who sit in the House of Commons to keep her in Number 10, it seemingly came as a big shock to her that they would be willing to bring down the government in order to avoid Northern Ireland being given special status, allowing it to stay in the Customs Union. This was DUP 101 – anyone who understands even the slightest thing about them knows that they would never have gone for what May was proposing. All of the journalists were shocked when the leaks started to come, the draft wording of the agreement – how did May get the DUP to agree to this, we all wondered? Turns out, it hadn’t crossed her mind, amazingly enough.
The other is that Great Britain has just been played by both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the two of them unconsciously conspiring to make the British government look foolish and weak – on the very same day. I’ve read a lot from Brexiteers about how Ireland is supposedly being used and abused by the EU at present, but I see things very differently: for the first time in the history of Anglo-Irish relations, Ireland was the stronger partner. It stuck to what it wanted, almost got it from Britain, and even in not getting it have made Britain look weak.
Yet the press have gone surprisingly lightly on Theresa May this morning, given the size of the pie in the face. Normally, they would be all over this kind of thing, the tabloids photoshopping a turnip onto the top of her head or something similar. Instead, everyone is deeply silent, as a sort of national shock sets in. Did we really just get bested by both halves of Ireland? Weirdly, Juncker, for probably the first time in his life, judged the national mood in Britain correctly: at the very muted press conference he gave beside May, he praised her gratuitously, calling her a “very tough negotiator”. Like everyone in the UK, Jean-Claude felt sorry for the prime minister.