Theresa May's empty pledges will come crashing down on her at last

IT seems that writing about Brexit should carry an implied “At the time of typing”, or carry a timestamp, so quickly do things appear to move.

With that in mind, here’s an explainer of how we got here and – more importantly – where events may take us.

National header

First published in The National, 15 November 2018

The basic problem stems from a failure of intellectual honesty running all through the Leave campaign, which was then adopted and amplified with a convert’s zeal by Theresa May when she stood to be prime minister after David Cameron disgracefully walked away.

During the EU referendum campaign, when I spoke at public meetings the length and breadth of the country, I was always upfront that it is perfectly legitimate to want to leave the EU. But – and it’s a big but – I said to Leave advocates that if you propose ripping up the legal basis of how we have lived our lives and organised our economy for almost half a century, then it is only fair you explain what you want to replace it with. Even in broad terms, do you want our relationship with the EU to be like Norway, or Canada, or Ukraine, or Turkey, or something else? On that note, please do tell us the “something else” that seems to be vaguely floated. There are upsides and downsides to all options, so I’m game for – nay, I’d love – a proper debate about what will best suit us.

But the “options” slate was left shamefully blank, and I’ve not seen much progress since. The basic premise has been a Big Brexit Lie: We can have all the same advantages of being in a club without actually being a member of it. Everything has stemmed from that original sin, including the achingly vacuous “Brexit means Brexit” forming a key plank of UK Government policy. Brexit, in short, was going to be anything we wanted it to be, said the UK Government. Trust us.

Theresa May, in trying to keep her warring factions happy, tied her own hands. She ruled out freedom of movement, putting the UK outside the single market. She ruled out the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, so that means being out of the EU agencies, and so on.

The EU took her pronouncements seriously. The EU proposed, and the UK agreed, that chief negotiator Michel Barnier would focus first on the exit agreement composed of three heads (citizens’ rights, the financial obligations, and Northern Ireland) and only then once those are agreed would talks move on to the future relationship.

The first two parts have been largely agreed for months. Northern Ireland – given the Good Friday Agreement and the fact that Dublin, as one of the 27, is able to lobby hard for the peace agreement to be respected – has taken longer to work out. A waffly five-page “political declaration” is annexed to the withdrawal agreement but, given that it has no binding obligations, I feel it’s meaningless. Bear in mind that this “deal” is only the exit itself, and this was supposed to be the easy bit.

As the details of the text emerge bit by bit, it could be that May has done the unthinkable. She has united the different strands of her own party and alliances, but sadly for her it’s in opposition to this text.

She agreed the Northern Ireland backstop – it would remain effectively within the single market unless other solutions can be found – in December. It should surprise nobody that EU27 has expected her to stick to that. That throws the DUP under the bus, but now that her Budget has passed, perhaps she has less need of them.

So where now? May’s strategy, to the extent I can make one out, is to present the MPs with an entirely false choice: This exit deal with waffly warm words on the future relationship, or cliff-edge chaos.

Article 50 is and always was a nuclear option designed in such a way that no serious government would ever use it: In the absence of an agreement EU law stops automatically on the two-year anniversary of its triggering. So it is true that no deal is possible. But it is unconscionable, and it would not last because it could not last.

MPs should not accept this false choice. There’s no good news in this text for Scotland, so the SNP’s position is clear. Where we entirely support a special status for Northern Ireland, it proves that we could have had special status too, and May has delivered us nothing.

Within her own ranks, May has also not delivered for Leave voters – the status envisaged in the text actually gives up control, not takes it back, and also makes it well nigh impossible to negotiate the fantasy trade deals they were so exercised about.

While the resignation of Jo Johnson is telling in itself, we can infer a great deal more from the way he did it and how he has acted since, by calling for a second EU referendum. He seems to have worked out that this is a package that will please nobody, and the only way out that they can pretend is remotely principled is a second vote. You can see also some of the ERG headbangers justifying their opposition to it on the grounds that it undermines the UK Union. I would gently suggest any Brexit would do that, but if it brings them over to opposing the package, fair enough.

So the jackals are turning on May. Holding them off for as long as she has is a remarkable feat of constructive ambiguity, but it was always going to end in a crash. This “all-benefits Brexit” was no more than a flight of fancy, and here is the reality looming out of the clouds.