Brexit vote means next week will be huge in Northern Ireland and UK politics, yet there’s little clue how it will all end

Prime Minister Theresa May stands with First Secretary of State Damian Green (right), DUP leader Arlene Foster (second left), DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds (left), as DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (third right) shakes hands with chief whip, Gavin Williamson, inside 10 Downing Street after the DUP agreed a deal to back the Conservative government in June 2017. It is not now clear what will happen to the DUP-Tory arrangement, but it does not look great. That a Tory government propped up by an NI unionist party has been prepared to compromise sovereignty to placate Dublin is a bad harbinger, even if this Withdrawal Agreement falls Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire
Prime Minister Theresa May stands with First Secretary of State Damian Green (right), DUP leader Arlene Foster (second left), DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds (left), as DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (third right) shakes hands with chief whip, Gavin Williamson, inside 10 Downing Street after the DUP agreed a deal to back the Conservative government in June 2017. It is not now clear what will happen to the DUP-Tory arrangement, but it does not look great. That a Tory government propped up by an NI unionist party has been prepared to compromise sovereignty to placate Dublin is a bad harbinger, even if this Withdrawal Agreement falls Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

By this time next week the future of the United Kingdom over the coming decades might finally begin to look clear.

The future of Northern Ireland, and its place within the UK, might look clearer too.

We are now in the remarkable situation that it is hard to say what will happen to this Province, or the nation as a whole.

It is increasingly possible that there will be a second EU referendum, and if so it might well lead to Brexit being overturned.

It might also lead to the opposite, an increased vote for Brexit.

And it might well lead to a three (or more) option question that actually increases the confusion and so the current divisions and bitterness.

It is possible that Tuesday’s likely defeat of the Withdrawal Agreement will set in train a series of events that leads to a general election.

This might lead to Jeremy Corbyn getting into Downing Street. Some very good number crunchers think that this is the most likely option, because they detect a swing in the country away from wealth inequality and so-called crony capitalism.

An election might also lead to a Brexiteer Tory leader becoming prime minister, if the party can agree on a new leader quickly and then working class supporters of Leave shun Labour, due to its ambivalence about Brexit.

If so, the Tory party could split, with some distinguished MPs including Dominic Grieve having said they will quit.

It is still theoretically possible that Theresa May will fight another general election, and even possible that her increased popularity with much of the country, which seems at present to admire her grit, will see her re-elected.

But that too could split the party, particularly if Brexiteer backbenchers are expected to fight on a manifesto that endorses Mrs May’s agreement. Will pro Brexit unity candidates emerge out of a split in the Tories if Mrs May stays on?

A huge imponderable in any election is what will happen to Ukip votes, now that the party is a spent force, after Nigel Farage quit.

Will he back a replacement campaign movement?

Will pro EU candidates similarly emerge to fight such an election?

It is possible that next week will bring us closer to a Brexit no deal. Some supporters of Brexit insist that that is what will happen if there is no Withdrawal Agreement, because it is the default outcome.

My sense is that the opposition within Parliament to no deal is so great that MPs will find a way to stop it.

The fact that the government has been so patently averse to no deal from the beginning has been a catastrophic tactical error in the negotiations, greatly emboldening the EU.

A political operator in Brussels tells me that Europe was factoring in the possibility of no deal from the beginning, so would have been psychologically prepared for that outcome even if the UK also had been organising for a crash-out.

Never in the 30+ years that I have been following British politics has there been such uncertainty and confusion over such a major matter as our future relationship with the EU, and people who remember back to World War Two say the same of their own recollections.

And not for several decades time has Northern Ireland’s place in the UK looked so uncertain.

This is not to say that there is an imminent prospect of a vote of Irish unity in a border poll so much as to speculate on the potentially far-reaching the implications of this proposed Withdrawal Agreement.

The matter is extraordinarily complex, and there are many different arguments and interpretations as to what is happening (including Brandon Lewis MP’s thoughts in my interview with him on page 6, a fuller version of which is on our website, link below).

I still hold to my assessment that the key thing that has emerged from the morass of detail and pages of proposals is that NI will, in effect, never be able to leave the EU regulatory and customs space.

If I am right about that, it is a change greater than the Anglo Irish Agreement, even if it is also true (as some commentators have pointed out since I recently made the comparison with that 1985 AIA) that unionists now have many more friends at Westminster than they did then.

What does all this turmoil mean for the Conservative and DUP arrangement?

It is not looking good.

The very fact that a Tory government propped up by an NI unionist party has been prepared to compromise sovereignty to placate Dublin is a bad harbinger, even if this Withdrawal Agreement falls.

The best thing that could happen from a DUP perspective would be for the Withdrawal Agreement to be defeated on Tuesday by a margin of more than 100 votes, and Mrs May to stand down, then to be followed by a more eurosceptic leader.

Then, after that, for the EU to give key last minute concessions, despite the repeated insistence of the EU that that will not happen.

That scenario is an unlikely one, as is the next best thing that could happen from a DUP perspective: no deal.

No deal, however, will also be grim and could lead to massive anger and upheaval on this island, as well as a fundamental breach between business here and the DUP.

Although the DUP would not admit it, a return to the EU would be quite good for them, and bad for nationalists, because it would remove any constitutional damage to the Union. But it would in turn cause great resentment across the UK and might leave Britain sullenly back within the EU on worse terms than before.

The so-called Norway-for-Now option, as a possible compromise if the deal is heavily defeated next week, would probably be good for the DUP because it would be a soft, UK-wide Brexit that kicked other options into touch for now.

But if we were truly like Norway there would still be a customs border at the Irish land frontier (not one for standards of goods), which the EU and Dublin will now never accept, given that London has gone so far in ruling out that possibility.

What if the Withdrawal Agreement goes through and the backstop kicks in a year or two later?

I still tend to think it will be disastrous from a long-term unionist point of view, but then I am often too pessimistic.

In that scenario we will have to try hard to bring about the so-called best of both worlds Hong Kong scenario that might — just might — be the thing that secures the Union for another century.

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

• Brandon Lewis in Belfast: Backstop is only temporary