For Insider, like many people, November 22 will always be associated with events at Dealey Plaza, Dallas, in 1963 on America’s day of infamy. Insider could not help but note that anniversary when considering the latest Brexit drama of the past week which, like the Kennedy assassination, is transfixing people here and has the potential to leave an indelible mark on our country.
After so much uncertainty about whether a deal was achievable at all, the sudden announcement last week that one had been agreed in principle caught many people off-guard. There was initial euphoria on this side of the Irish Sea as it contained many positive features and seemed to give a reasonable prospect of mitigating the damage of Brexit on this country.
Not alone did the much-discussed Northern Ireland backstop appear with no time limits, it went further, applying to the entire UK. Therefore, if no agreement has been reached before the end of the transition period on a trade deal that will allow for an open border in Ireland, the entire UK will remain aligned to the EU for regulatory purposes until such a deal is done.
As Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said, this is going a step further than the backstop agreement of last December and is an even better deal for Ireland, not only avoiding a hard border between the North and the Republic, but also addressing the east/west dimension, thereby potentially making life a lot easier for those who trade and move between the two islands.
Amid the initial euphoria however, Insider was not alone in warning that unfortunately a flipside of the deal being so positive for Ireland was that it would go down like a lead balloon in Britain. So it proved as within hours a cross-section of Britiah opinion reacted with hostility and the prediction of Tory arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker that the deal would be in ribbons within days seemed to be under-stating matters, a point brought home by a series of resignations from Theresa May’s government the following morning, most notably that of the Brexit secretary Dominic Raab.
The British perspective
Looking at this from a British perspective, the negatives outweigh the positives. While the agreement does give Britain the ability to limit freedom of movement, thereby addressing a key concern of many Leave voters, and leaves open the prospect of having access to EU markets post-Brexit, it also leaves the UK subject to the European Court of Justice and it is hard to see how this would be consistent with ‘taking back control’.
Notwithstanding the UK-wide nature of the backstop, it does at least theoretically also envisage separate treatment for Northern Ireland in some instances, which to many people, not least the DUP, would represent a weakening of the Union. The backstop may never be implemented but, having seen the imbalance of power during this initial phase, there must be a pessimism in the UK at the prospect of striking that favourable free trade deal that would negate its importance.
More generally though, this agreement leaves the UK subject to EU laws and regulations which, having left the EU, it will have no say or influence in setting. This makes something of a farce of the entire Brexit process and leaves Brexiteers themselves looking increasingly farcical.
Dealing in contradictions
There have been shouts of betrayal from many quarters and a need to respect the referendum result. Brexiteers have called for Mrs May to go back and get a better deal, although some of these calls sound so simplistic as to be reminiscent of children calling for the police to just go out and catch the baddies and put them all in jail.
The problem, as Insider has remarked previously, is that in that 2016 referendum, the people of the UK did NOT vote to do a deal, they voted to leave the EU. Any form of deal will involve compromise on the part of the UK and almost inevitably a watering down of Brexit; in a sense, by doing any sort of deal the government will be betraying the will of the people.
Additionally, there is the reality of being subject to laws it can no longer influence. This is precisely what the Remain camp warned would happen at the time of the referendum and, having seen it come to pass, they are hardly going to turn around and vote for the deal now. In fact, polls show Remainers are slightly more opposed to this deal than the Brexiteers.
In a sense therefore we are back to the scenario where it is a stark binary choice between no deal and no Brexit. The polls taken in the past week largely reflect this reality, with little public support for the agreement and public opinion converging around the two nuclear options.
Heading for the iceberg?
Could we therefore be on the verge of seeing what most people consider to be the ultimate nightmare, a no-deal Brexit, come to pass? On the one hand, this is now a real risk. With the opposition parties and Remain-inclined MPs having little incentive to vote for the deal, Mrs May can expect little assistance from outside Tory ranks.
To get this deal passed she is likely to require the Tory and DUP MPs on which her majority is built to maintain discipline, put aside its concerns and dislike for the deal, and vote it through. This is not looking likely. The DUP having already deserted the ship to all intents and purposes, while the hardline Brexiteers have spoken out so vehemently that a volte face is hardly a credible option on their part.
'An alternative approach might be to give people the choice between Mrs May's deal and a no-deal Brexit, thereby going over the heads of MPs in order to break the deadlock'
On the other hand, we have heard many MPs from across the parties state vehemently in recent days that they will not countenance a no-deal Brexit. There is, we are told, no majority in the House of Commons for such a course of action.
There is however an analysis which holds that, having voted to invoke Article 50 last year, parliament has already decreed that a no-deal Brexit is the default outcome, only being over-ridden should a deal be struck. Therefore, to block a no-deal Brexit, it may not suffice for MPs to simply not vote in favour of it, rather they would have to actively over-turn their vote from last year and opt for something else. But what? There has been talk in some quarters of a change of tack, perhaps applying for temporary membership of the EEA while the long-term relationship is worked through - the ‘Norway for Now’ option as it has become known.
A second chance?
This uncertainty has also led to frenzied excitement in some quarters that the other extreme option could be back on the table, with people being offered the chance to cancel Brexit entirely through a second referendum. Mrs May could plausibly argue that, having shown how impossible it has proven to chart a middle course, she must now ask the people if they are sure they really wish to proceed with the extreme course that would be a no-deal Brexit.
This too is fraught with danger and logistical difficulties. We cannot be certain what the outcome would be; would another Leave vote be taken as a mandate for a hard, no-deal Brexit? Probably. Would there be time to arrange it in advance of the March 29 deadline? It would be difficult, but the Article 50 process could likely be delayed to facilitate it.
Most contentious of all would be that it would be seen by half of the population as an affront, as MPs telling people they had made the ‘wrong’ choice the first time around, a point supported by the reality that on that occasion people defied the advice of the majority of MPs and asked parliament to implement something Parliament itself did not wish to do. This factor could well exacerbate anger and make the outcome all the more unpredictable. An alternative approach might be to give people the choice between her deal and a no-deal Brexit, thereby going over the heads of MPs in order to break the deadlock.
Head on the block time
So, is Insider willing to make any prediction as to how this will ultimately play out? To say the least, that is a hazardous task and one runs the risk of being proven to be miles off the mark in double-quick time.
What Insider will say however is that he sees this process being prolonged and now turning into a tactical, as opposed to a technical, process. The exit date will be extended beyond next March and we will see some tweaking of the deal, but it will come down to Mrs May threatening MPs with the two extreme options in the hope of cajoling the extremists to back the deal for fear of the alternative; Remainers to vote for it to avoid a no-deal Brexit, Brexiteers to do so in order to avoid a second referendum that might reverse the entire process.
In the end, notwithstanding the farce it would represent, Insider guesses (and will go no further than that! ) the final outcome will be some sort of fudge, loosely based around either Mrs May’s bad deal or the ‘Norway for Now’ option. It will be a bad day for the UK, while from an Irish perspective will be summed up as ‘damage limitation achieved’.