Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: PM's Brexit deal seems to be in tatters, but last thing we need is bitter sectarian general election

Not even a change of Tory leader can save this Government... and early poll would be a disaster, says Alban Maginness

For Theresa May, the apparent success of a "collective agreement" on Brexit by the Cabinet on Saturday was unceremoniously shattered on Sunday by the sudden resignation of her Brexit Minister, David Davis. While his decision proved to be hugely embarrassing and damaging, the subsequent resignation of the leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson on Monday was an even greater embarrassment and, indeed, a crippling blow to the Prime Minister's leadership and authority.

But what is clear with the departure of the difficult and unimpressive Brexit Minister Davis and the reckless and irresponsible Foreign Secretary Johnson is that the patched-up agreement by the Cabinet at Chequers is rapidly falling apart, to the point that the collapse of Theresa May's Government is now highly probable.

Whatever 'collective agreement' was reached by the Cabinet over the weekend has been robbed of any credibility by these two senior resignations.

While the departure of both of these irresponsible, maverick politicians was overdue, their dual exit was intended to sabotage May's carefully crafted compromise package on Brexit. In that regard, they have succeeded.

The British public, whether they are pro- or anti-Brexit, will henceforth regard the agreement reached as phony and lacking in credibility.

There cannot now be any pretence that there is any real consensus on a common Brexit package and there must be no real sense of confidence in getting this plan through the House of Commons, given the strength of opposition there is among hardline Brexiteer Tory backbenchers like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Inevitably, if there is no resolution, then this Government will simply implode and a General Election will have to be called.

Even if Theresa May were to resign as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, it is doubtful whether a new Tory leader could navigate through the enormous divisions within the party and form a credible alternative government.

The differences over Europe are too intense and bitter to be resolved by the election of a new Conservative leader.

But even if there had been no resignations and the evident cracks were papered over, there is no certainty that Brussels would accept the plan supposedly agreed by all at the now-infamous Chequers sleepover.

Whether this new White Paper has solved the many problems of Brexit and cleared the way for an agreed exit with the EU remains to be determined.

We will only know when the full implications of the White Paper are fully parsed and analysed in the place where it really matters - that is in the heart of Europe, Brussels.

Looking at what has been revealed to date, the Government package is essentially a complex series of compromises that will end up pleasing no one, whether Leaver or Remainer. Worse still, one suspects that they will not be acceptable to Brussels.

So, the Prime Minister may have gone through all of this huge political pain for no discernible advantage at home, nor, for that matter, in Europe.

And if the EU refuses to engage on Theresa May's proposals, then there is a very serious risk of the UK leaving without a deal. This would be the worst possible scenario, economically and politically, for Britain and, in particular, for ourselves in Northern Ireland.

Looking at the proposals, it is still very unclear as to what is intended with regard to the Irish border. But, given the surprisingly solid internal solidarity of the European Union on Ireland and the Irish border, and their making it a top political priority in the negotiating agenda, there is no doubt that they will stand firm on resolving this issue to their complete satisfaction.

Therefore, without absolute clarity on this vexed and crucially sensitive issue, it is extremely unlikely that the EU will endorse the direction in which Theresa May wants to travel.

In 1922, Winston Churchill wearisomely remarked about "the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again" in the wake of the First World War to bedevil British politics.

And so, once again, "the dreary steeples" - this time in the form of the Irish border - have proven to be a persistent and irritating obstacle in the British Government's difficult search for a clean Brexit.

With typical disdain for - or indifference to - Ireland, either north or south, the English Brexiteers have blindly overlooked the obvious problem of the Irish border.

Despite our geopolitical closeness, our English neighbours have historically ignored - or, worse still, used - Ireland and the Irish people, with disastrous consequences.

But Ireland, like Banquo's Ghost, continues to haunt British politics and is central to finding a solution to the problem of Brexit.

Unfortunately for us, Theresa May's problems are our problems.

So, if an unwelcome general election is called soon, then our current problems will be further compounded by the inevitable sectarian dogfight that general elections here have become.

Belfast Telegraph

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