For months, years, it’s felt like swimming in blancmange. But with Brexit scheduled for barely three weeks away, minds are being concentrated. At last. And, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, viable options are starting to appear…
In 1653 Oliver Cromwell lost it with the so-called Rump parliament, barged in with a bunch of soldiers and bellowed: ‘You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. In the name of God, go!’
Would Theresa May like to do the same right now? You betcha.
Remember, back in January the commons landed the mother of all punches on her, chucking out her hard-won Brexit deal in the biggest defeat ever for a sitting government.
Since then she’s been trying every which way to make it all better, both in negotiations with Europe and in sops to MP’s who might be won round. And what’s she achieved? Diddly-squat. Give or take.
So, with bye-bye Brussels now so close you can see the whites of its eyes, and with pistols in parliament not really a runner, what exactly does she do next?
First off, there’ll be another vote this week on her more or less unrevised deal. It’s more or less certain, logically, that that’ll go down once again like a pot of poo. So the plan is, vaguely, to let the house decide if it wants to leave without a deal at all then. If not, there’ll be the option of asking the EU if they wouldn’t mind awfully giving us a bit more time to get our shindig together.
That’s their call. Not surprisingly, they’re fed up to the back teeth with us already, and could well tell us to dream on unless we show signs of cooking up some sort of viable plan B.
As it happens, there is a glimmer of hope in that direction. In the form of serious talks going on behind the scenes between the Labour high command, that’s always wanted a much softer Brexit than May has in mind, and leading dissident Tories who’re after the same thing.
There’s a possibility they’ll get a chance to put their idea to the vote this week. And if they can muster the numbers, they might just swing it. A big if, but it would go down very well indeed in the European Union.
To define terms here, Corbyn’s cuddly Brexit would mean Britain remained effectively signed up to Europe as a trading bloc, while still ducking out of it as a centralising political project.
Of course the hardcore Brexiteers would hate it, as it’d mean we’d still have to abide by EU rules while not having a say in making them. And the free movement of peoples between countries, including ours, would carry on.
Against that, there’d be two miraculous upsides.
One, firms would be allowed to carry on with business as normal. Think of it. Food shortages? Medicine shortages? Chaos at the ports? Companies relocating abroad? Import/export outfits going under? At a stroke all that would be like the millennium bug. For the birds.
And two, what Irish backstop? This really matters as it’s been the biggest bugbear in the increasingly grumpy talks with EU negotiators all along. So it’s worth reminding ourselves what it’s all about.
The idea was devised as an insurance policy. If the UK ended up with different trading arrangements from the rest of Europe there’d have to be checks on goods going in and out. A pain in places like Dover, but potentially bloody between the north and south of Ireland.
The land border’s about three hundred miles long with around the same number of crossing points. Physical barriers along the way would be obvious targets for anyone wanting to blow peace in the province sky-high.
Sound far-fetched? It ain’t.
Remember, the euphemistically termed ‘Troubles’ were actually a low-level civil war that went on for decades and cost thousands of lives.
Few in mainland Britain were ever that fussed, except briefly when the IRA targeted England. And the idea that it’s all done and dusted now is an illusion.
To this day the so-called Peace Walls dividing Protestant and Catholic areas in Belfast don’t so much celebrate peace as keep it. They’re still getting higher and longer, and ancient hatreds between the two communities show little sign of abating.
Given that the schism started in Stuart times and the killings only petered out just over twenty years ago this is hardly surprising.
To say Northern Ireland is a tinderbox would be an overstatement. But the entente is frighteningly short of cordiale.
The hardcore Brexiteers insist the risks are overstated, when set against their fear that we may never be able extricate ourselves from the backstop. Meaning we’d be so tied to Europe that we’d never really have left it.
You can’t help but wonder how much, if any, of this occurred to anyone when they voted in the referendum. Nor can you blame people. The politicians did not big it up at the time. That’s if they even thought of it, which is doubtful.
All of which brings us back to Jeremy Corbyn. Though most of his party members are remainers, in his heart he isn’t. Besides, he always hoped he could use the Tory tizzy over Europe to force a general election.
However, Labour’s lacklustre poll ratings argue against even trying. Which is why he could be contemplating seizing the moment either to push for painless Brexit, all things being relative, or even to go all out for a second referendum.
Imagine the cartoon image of him stroking his beard, looking really pensive. And the thought bubble: ‘You mean I’m not allowed to be Prime Minister? Sod it, might as well save the nation then’.
Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.
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