The abortion referendum at the end of the month may be dominating political discourse at the moment, but behind the scenes the issue really vexing, and increasingly troubling, the Government is the ongoing saga of Brexit.
Around St Patrick’s Day some form of progress appeared to have been made in agreeing a roadmap for the talks – albeit with the issue of the Irish border again fudged - but the subsequent two months have been a rollercoaster, and ultimately we all seem to find our back in the same position with little movement.
For all the unpredictability however, Insider is willing to make two forecasts: One, that things will finally come to a head at the June summit of EU leaders, and second, anyone who thinks the British Conservative Party will be mindful of Irish interests is guilty of grand delusion.
Why do the Tories hate the EU?
The result of the Brexit referendum may have come as a shock to many – ‘they surely won’t go with the nuclear option when push comes to shove’ was a common refrain – but surely nobody can be surprised by the depth of Tory hostility to all things European.
It was a Tory prime minister who brought the UK into the old EEC in 1973 and for the first 10/12 years of membership, hostility towards it was very much a Labour thing. The Tories loved the idea of a large free trading block, their happiness culminating at the completion of the Single Market in 1986. However, by then, a natural suspicion of the pooling of sovereignty, centralised decision making and, as they saw it, excessive bureaucracy at the heart of decision making, was causing a rethink.
The late 1980s rows over membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, coupled with Margaret Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech, and the subsequent loss of senior cabinet allies Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, ultimately helped sow her downfall before things really reached crisis point under John Major as the party threatened to tear itself apart over the Maastricht Treaty and the single currency.
Since Mr Major’s departure the Tories have become utterly inflexible on the European issue with at least two leadership races being decided on who was most hostile to Europe – the Europhile former chancellor Kenneth Clarke remarked in 2007 that "someone like me would have no hope of even being selected as a candidate for parliament if starting out again in politics". A slight exaggeration perhaps but only slight.
Brexiteers - abusing their mandate
In the period leading up to the Brexit referendum in 2016, former Tory minister Michael Portillo, himself at the heart of the European civil war during the Major years, stated he was opposed to the referendum taking place at all and would rather Britain just continued being the obstructive ‘bad Europeans’ of recent decades. His rationale was that the ‘Remain’ side would win and would abuse their mandate to lead Britain into deeper integration with Europe.
What has in fact materialised is the winning Brexiteers abusing their mandate. From being in a position where they merely wanted to leave the EU but were silent on the Customs Union and Single Market, they are now adamant they want out of both. Furthermore, they want nothing to do with the European Court of Justice and many of them are fine with a ‘no deal Brexit’, with some of them even pushing it as a desired outcome.
Throughout it all they are adamant that the EU will just have to cave it because ‘they need us more than we need them’. Truly the old jibe of ‘fog in the Channel – continent cut off’ comes to mind. Insider awaits news of some technological marvel that will enable Britain to be physically relocated to perhaps south-east Asia or the Caribbean, and very much expects some Brexiteers to welcome it as "Something we must try"! With all of this in mind is it any wonder the Irish question is not a concern?
Tory attitudes to Northern Ireland
On the face of it, being the Conservative and Unionist Party, one would expect the Tories to be very keen to attend to the needs of Northern Ireland and to be focussed on safeguarding the ties between it and Great Britain. The pivotal position of the DUP to the arithmetic at Westminster should in theory further elevate Northern Irish interests.
Certainly it is difficult to see the Tories in these, or any, circumstances, ultimately signing up to the backstop agreement on the border that they agreed (albeit with many different interpretations of what it entailed ) last December, if it leads to a border in the Irish Sea. However, as was illustrated in 2015 when fears of Scottish and SNP influence at Westminster were played up in order to win the swing English votes that gave them a majority, the Tories are now more likely to look at the UK regions as something of a hindrance threatening to scupper the wishes of the rest of the country.
In the case of the Irish question however, there is another dynamic at play. Notwithstanding the role of the party in the peace process over many years, culminating in the input of the Major government to secure the 1994 ceasefires, and the very friendly relations under David Cameron, there is a prominent wing of the party that has a natural suspicion of things such as compromise with gunmen, power-sharing, and rights-based legislation that distorts the natural workings of the market in their eyes. They are not therefore natural fans of the Good Friday Agreement; indeed, Michael Gove, the Brexiteer who perhaps made the biggest impact in the referendum campaign itself, went on record as far back as 2000 to denounce it as something of a sell-out and, while he has not commented on it much since, those close to him feel he still broadly holds those views.
'A hard border would be particularly traumatic for Northern Nationalists. For Unionists too, however the disdain and indifference with which large sections of the Tory Party view Northern Ireland should give pause for thought'
One must also look at the bigger picture and many Tories, even if they value and support the Good Friday Agreement, do not see it as acceptable to prioritise it over the wishes of some 17 million voters. Indeed, some surveys of the general public suggest that among Tory leave voters, as much as 80 per cent feel damaging the Good Friday Agreement is a price worth paying if it secures a ‘clean Brexit’. That should be sobering for the Irish Government and officials.
There is also an element of many in the Tory Party, and in Britain generally, believing the Irish border issue is being over-hyped and, more particularly, is being used by the EU side as a means of pushing the British into a corner in the negotiations.
Clearly, none of this would be good for Irish interests. A hard border would be particularly traumatic for Northern Nationalists. For Unionists too, however the disdain and indifference with which large sections of the Tory Party view Northern Ireland should give pause for thought, and will reinforce the fear among many Unionists that when push comes to shove the Tories will dump them.
Theresa May's troubles
The electoral arithmetic and recent electoral trends do not make it easy for Prime Minister Theresa May to compromise either. Insider is not just referring to her reliance on DUP votes at Westminster following her disastrous general election campaign last year, but rather to the manner in which the Tories have become the ‘party of Brexit’.
Essentially, while shedding some of its softer support in Remain-friendly metropolitan areas, London in particular, it has managed to win much of the old UKIP vote while also peeling off Brexit-supporting Labour voters in the regions. The composition of its support base is now very much Brexit-friendly; these voters will expect a clean, meaningful, Brexit to be delivered and will not settle for excessive compromise.
Mrs May's cause has not been helped by the suspicion in which she is held by the ardent Brexiteers. While she did not campaign much herself – ironically her only significant intervention being to warn that Brexit would be bad and potentially destabilising for Northern Ireland – she was a Remainer and, notwithstanding the firm line she initially took which pleased them, the vibes she is giving more recently has caused hardline Brexiteers to conclude she does not truly believe in Brexit. Her apparent willingness to consider some form of customs union as a solution to the Irish Border issue in recent weeks has exacerbated this feeling.
As if having to fend off the Brexiteers was not enough, she also faces a challenge from the other side of the party and the prospect of the small number of Tory Europhiles (or those favourable to a softer Brexit at least ) teaming up with other parties to mandate her to remain in the customs union. This would leave her in a very invidious position, having to go against the wishes of her party’s core support or to defy the wishes of parliament. It would also leave her open to the charge of not being in command of her own party.
All in all, dark clouds have descended over Brussels in recent weeks, with many now concluding the talks will either collapse or the Article 50 process will have to be extended beyond March 2019, meaning another period of going around in circles. Insider expects things to come to a head in June.
Any hope from Labour?
Finally, while as Insider noted the Tories took the mantle of Euroscepticism from Labour about 30 years ago, we are seeing some old Labour Euroscepticism manifest itself in recent times. The party will particularly resist efforts to keep the UK in the single market, even if they have committed to remain in a customs union. The party will also be keen to somehow win back old Labour votes that have gone to the Tories. Insider will not dwell too much on the Labour position for now but warns the Irish Government not to rely on the UK opposition any more than the Tories.
A challenging few months lies ahead with a vista of political cul-de-sacs and roundabouts dominating the landscape.