Ben Lowry: DUP response to new EU deadline for Brexit means Theresa May’s deal is even more likely to fail

Prime Minister Theresa May leaves the British Residence in Brussels to return to the UK without attending the second day of the EU Council Summit on Friday March 22, 2019. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Prime Minister Theresa May leaves the British Residence in Brussels to return to the UK without attending the second day of the EU Council Summit on Friday March 22, 2019. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

There are various ways people can react when they are cornered, including two opposite ones.

They can capitulate or they can lash out.

Brexiteers were finally put in a corner by the EU on Thursday, with almost the acquiescence of Theresa May.

This is not to say that the prime minister was in agreement with the EU on tactics this week. She clearly wasn’t.

But Mrs May desperately wants to get her deal through, for fear of something catastrophic happening if she doesn’t, including a chaotic Brexit, the fall of the government, and the break-up of the Tory Pary (and possibly all three of those).

The problem for her is that the EU decision to give a brief extension to get the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) passed by April 12 seems to have exacerbated the problems within the Conservative Party, rather than to have scared the Brexiteer wing into submission over the deal.

John Redwood’s uncompromising comments on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday seemed to shatter any notion that opponents of the WA will diminish in number to a small core of Conservative backbenchers, so that the deal passes with the support of the bulk of Tories, the DUP and a few dozen Labour MPs.

The DUP’s statement later yesterday was such that it is now hard to see how the party will back the WA next week. It wants changes that are not on offer from the EU.

In any event, a dilemma this column raised two months ago has become all the more pertinent: the DUP’s natural comfort zone within the Conservative Party is on the latter’s right, so it risks alienating some Brexiteers if it looks malleable on Brexit for its own motives (as it perhaps it has already done, judging by Dan Hannan’s comments).

Yet the party cannot be unaware that the softer the Brexit, the less the threat to the Union.

My fear is that ‘no deal’ will be disastrous for unionism for a few reasons.

First, the government will fall (a raft of moderate Tory MPs will lose confidence in it).

Second, the will to implement such a hard Brexit is lacking. It would have been feasible if the population had been 60%, or preferably 70%, behind Brexit, including majority support in all four home countries and London.

Third, related to the point above, there will be uproar across the UK, and particular in Ireland. It will not matter if the actual disruption is relatively small (as people like the economist Graham Gudgin anticipate). Note the rage that has already been building in recent weeks in both Great Britain and NI.

Fourth, this government, even though it is unionist inclined, has long ago shown its hand as one of weakness in interactions with nationalist Ireland (from putting no pressure on Sinn Fein for collapsing Stormont to capitulating even on legacy to never resisting Irish rhetoric on Brexit, not matter how provocative). Reassuring Dublin after ‘no deal’ will be its top NI priority so it can focus on multiple other crises it will face after a crash out.

This appalling weakness is one reason I would not be dismayed to see the party tilt somewhat to the right if it could hold together in the event of an election. But a poll is just as likely to result in a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (in which case the horrors on legacy will worsen further in favour of the IRA).

So if ‘no deal’ will lead to a psychological meltdown, if the WA separates NI from GB in ways that are unacceptable, and if staying in the EU will avoid damage to the Union but comes at the price of massive national resentment, what else?

My view is that the Article 50 two-year window is so unacceptably short that the UK has a moral case for revoking it, then triggering it again the next day — just to buy time. But this is not possible without, in effect, lying to the EU about UK intentions to get the revoke.

I have been coming round to the view that we need to contest the MEP elections, stay in another two years, and immediately chart a completely new approach, such as determined pursuit of Norway as a place to park the UK for 20+ years.

But the EU might not allow that, and we let Norway sail long ago. Such a change of course seems even less likely than it did a week ago.

• DUP latest on Brexit, page 20

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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