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Jon Tonge: Another divisive week in Brexitland...and there’s no sign of fog clearing

What are the odds on a 6-5 split verdict from the Supreme Court judges next week?
What are the odds on a 6-5 split verdict from the Supreme Court judges next week?
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

What are the odds on a 6-5 split verdict from the Supreme Court judges next week?

Given the divisions which have beset the country over the last few years, it's hard to see how a Government prorogation of Parliament will produce unanimity of judicial thought.

Should the Supreme Court rule against the Government, it would be humiliation on an unprecedented scale for a Prime Minister. It ought to be a resignation issue but won't, given the proximity of a general election in late Autumn or early 2020.

Amid the noise, bluster and faux outrage, there will be a sizeable number of Labour MPs privately anxious to avoid a resumption of Parliament.

Why would they want to be dragged from the fun of a party conference by the Brighton seaside to hear parliamentary arguments played on a repeat loop for the last year?

While it is unlikely that the Supreme Court, should it find against the Government, will determine the date Parliament should resume, the pressure for an immediate restoration would be huge.

That could take a wrecking ball to the Conservatives' gathering in Manchester at the end of this month.

In truth, Parliament prorogued is probably as effective as Parliament sitting.

MPs wasted the last year voting against all options.

The Liberal Democrats have now decided that all options are off now, anyway. They will simply cancel Brexit. This from a party that supported a referendum.

Any chance of a deal will owe precious little to Westminster, where posturing and pantomime had long displaced any serious consideration of the issues at stage.

Instead, progress will be a product of often fractious but, of late, somewhat more measured exchanges involving the UK and Irish governments, the EU and the DUP.

Arlene Foster's party made a significant concession in accepting all-Ireland - in effect, EU - alignment in agriculture and food, but if that is the limit to the DUP's movement, there is still huge distance to travel.

More than 60% of cross-border trade is in other sectors and the demand for the backstop remains for those aspects.

There is a reasonable chance that the backstop is re-labelled as it is politically toxic - but a renaming is not a dispelling.

Resolving the issues will require much more moderation and considerable fudging.

Assurances might be given to the DUP that any checking of goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to, at most, token checks.

A revival of Stormont could be talked up as part of a triple-lock on any EU expansion of regulations covering all-Ireland trade, involving the Westminster and Dublin parliaments and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Some concessions to the technocratic approach to customs and regulations checks offered by the Alternative Arrangements Commission might be forthcoming.

The sum of modest parts might be sufficient to claim 'victory' in modifying the Withdrawal Agreement (the Conservatives and the DUP) or upholding all its principles (everyone else).

The DUP needs a win to take to its own party conference at the end of October, which, like Sinn Fein's Ard Fheis three weeks later, might take on the appearance of a pre-election rally.

Given the DUP's long-standing opposition to the backstop, the party needs to show how it made a substantial contribution to its modification.

Bilateral discussions between Arlene Foster and the Taoiseach indicate that neither party wants to be responsible for a no-deal failure.

Leo Varadkar has got most of his electorate onside in the blame game.

It might be harder for Arlene Foster at an election, even allowing that the DUP's support has held up perfectly well in the three years since the EU referendum.

The endgame will probably not become clear until the European Council meeting in mid-October. It may be autumn but it is neither mellow nor fruitful. Just very misty, with little sign of the fog clearing.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool. He has produced the 'Britain Votes' books on each general election since 1997 (Oxford University Press)

Belfast Telegraph


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