Belfast Telegraph

Brexit deal: Honeyed words, fudge and ambiguity make for a recipe sure to be hard for DUP to digest

Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson
Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Normally the DUP at least waits until seeing the text before rejecting the deal. This time Sammy Wilson and Nigel Dodds were already solemnly shaking heads before some outlets had broken the news there was a "technical deal".

Reports of what that contains suggest it fractures all three of the DUP's tests. They are:

a) No divergence - customs or regulatory - for Northern Ireland.

b) Any backstop to be temporary.

c) Withdrawal from the backstop to be at sole discretion of the UK Government.

None of these three conditions was ever likely to be met in full.

What the withdrawal agreement may contain are honeyed words, fudge and ambiguity concerning aspects of the extent of Northern Ireland's continuing alignment with the single market.

A border in the Irish Sea may not be "envisaged".

Continuing long-term UK alignment with the EU customs union may not be "anticipated".

The UK would have the right to end its alignment subject to certain guarantees and EU approval.

The freedom to achieve freedom, as no DUP member ever said.

So the odds on the top Conservative team coming over to enjoy a bit of DUP conferencing on Saturday week have lengthened. Then again, the odds on some of that team still being in place by then have also lengthened.

Yet amid the likelihood of Cabinet resignations, it ought to be all eyes on Labour now. With just three tests for a deal, the DUP seems positively parsimonious compared to Corbyn's party, laying down six.

Some of these are vacuous: "Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?" How exactly is a "race to the bottom" (of what?) defined?

Others are important for Northern Ireland: "Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK"? One might assume that continued single market alignment to manage the border might pass this test.

One test, however, appears impossible to pass: "Does it deliver the exact same benefits as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union?" Surely no deal is capable?

If Labour opposes the withdrawal agreement the proposals are surely sunk. This is the case, even allowing for a number of Labour MPs, fearful of no deal, supporting May's plan as the least worst option.

Opposing 'May-Brussels' may unite much of the Labour Party. Brexiteers get what they want; Labour tribalists likewise. A general election might offer hope, and for Labour Remainers, ensuring parliamentary defeat boosts the prospects of a second referendum.

Theresa May has said there won't be a second vote. She said there wouldn't be a snap election seven times before calling one in 2017. She told us the UK was leaving the customs union. And didn't tell us (until now) Northern Ireland would remain aligned to the single market.

She also told us during the referendum campaign it was "inconceivable" that the border could remain the same if Northern Ireland was outside the EU. Maybe she will next tell us that even if she cannot steer a Brexit agreement through parliament, she will remain Prime Minister anyway. Like everything else, that won't be true either.

An election would be dangerous for the Conservatives, not least because the party may fracture into pro- and anti-deal sections, making coherent campaigning almost impossible. But no party could be confident of how they might perform, except of course for the DUP and Sinn Fein.

A second referendum would be almost as tortuous - but if parliament cannot decide, the people might have to (again).

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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