A soft Brexit would be no hardship for the DUP

Theresa May addresses members of the Cabinet during Friday's meeting at Chequers to thrash out an agreed Brexit position
Theresa May addresses members of the Cabinet during Friday's meeting at Chequers to thrash out an agreed Brexit position

Almost two years ago, three weeks after the EU referendum, I first voiced my concern that Brexit – in the sense of a clear, clean break between the EU and the UK – was problematic.

In a piece for the News Letter on December 11, 2017 (a few days after the PM was forced to back down on an attempt to ‘accommodate’ Michel Barnier) I wrote: ‘Theresa May isn’t and never was in the Leave camp. I’ve written on a number of occasions that the final deal (and I’ve never dismissed the possibility of a second referendum which keeps us in the EU) could place us in a “constitutional granny flat” in which the UK is neither quite in, nor quite out of the EU. House of Commons arithmetic favours a soft Brexit; meaning that if she did decide to face down both the DUP and her own rebels she would probably still have the numbers to get a soft deal through.’

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Well, on Friday she waved the keys of the granny flat at her Cabinet and defied her rebels to resign and find their own way home without the use of their ministerial cars. None of them did. Worse, rather than merely taunt them with a soft Brexit, she actually waved them off with a blancmange in one hand and a written warning to them in the other: ‘During the EU referendum campaign collective responsibility on EU policy was temporarily suspended. As we developed our policy on Brexit I have allowed Cabinet colleagues to express their individual views. Agreement on this proposal marks the point where that is no longer the case and collective responsibility is now fully restored.’

The proposals have been described as a route that would ‘lead directly to a worst-of-all-worlds “Black Hole” Brexit where the UK is stuck permanently as a vassal state in the EU’s legal and regulatory tarpit...’. Actually, I’m not sure that will be the final outcome. It does look increasingly likely that a second referendum is on the cards, particularly if the Conservative Party embarks on a bloody and prolonged civil war. And maybe that’s what we need. The Conservatives need to decide once and for all what, precisely, their position is on the EU. As do Labour. If this leads to a realignment of politics and parties in the UK, then so be it.

I’m not sure what the likes of Gove, Johnson, Davies, Fox, Rees-Mogg et al do now. The fact that someone as weak and dithery as May feels able to call their bluff tells you all you need to know about how useless they have been in selling the vision and reality of a UK fully divorced from the EU. They don’t trust each other enough to rally around one figure to try and oust May. They probably don’t have the numbers, either. And even if they did topple her, time is no longer on their side; with just eight months left to produce a deal they could sell to both the Commons and the EU. She has trapped them.

How this can be interpreted as anything other than a stunning victory for Remain is beyond me. Irrespective of how it will be dressed up, it looks like the UK will be, to all intents and purposes, a favoured nation state within the broad parameters of the EU.

Does this cause particular problems for the DUP? Probably not. They’ve had their own backstop position since December 2017 and Nigel Dodds repeated it again on Saturday: ‘Exiting the EU has been a long-standing DUP position. That trajectory has been set. In so doing we must always be mindful of our top priority – protecting the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. People voted to take back control of their money, laws and borders but still want to have sensible relationships with their nearest neighbours in the EU.’ That’s soft language. The sort of language which seems to hint at no immediate threat to the DUP/Conservative deal.

It would, of course, suit the DUP very nicely if the Brexit debacle was solved fairly quickly and pretty softly. They didn’t expect the result in the first place; seeing the referendum campaign as merely a way of discombobulating Mike Nesbitt’s pro-EU position and stealing some votes from the UUP in the 2016 Assembly election – six weeks before the referendum. They talked the usual talk about sovereignty and a ‘strong, independent UK,’ but still expected a reasonably comfortable victory for Remain.

A soft Brexit is good for the DUP. It makes the Irish unity chatter and border poll push less relevant, as well as easing the present tensions between the British and Irish governments. Crucially, a soft Brexit would be a hammer blow for Sinn Fein, who – although they would never say it – have grasped the uncertainties and concerns thrown up since June 2016 as a means of keeping the unity project very high up the political agenda.

I’m not saying that a soft Brexit kills off Sinn Fein’s ambitions for a generation (as it happens, I still think a border poll is inevitable and all bets are off when it comes to a poll centred on old emotions and shifting identities); but I am saying that a soft Brexit favours the constitutional status quo.

But even with a soft Brexit (and it’s not yet a certainty) the Irish unity genie is well and truly out of the bottle; and it will be harder than some unionists think to put it back in and cork it. The debate is ongoing and will shift to reflect what happens next March. So, I’ll say it again: unionists must not be sanguine – even with a soft Brexit. The border poll is coming down the line. They need to be ready for it. Surprises, as with the EU referendum, should never be ruled out.