Belfast Telegraph

Theresa May Northern Ireland visit: Remainer and Brexiteer give their verdicts

Heading for the exit... but are we any clearer about what happens when we get there?

As Theresa May's NI visit draws to a close, two commentators - one a Remainer and one a Brexiteer - give their verdict.

Remainer Tom Kelly: A no deal  is burning your house as you try to sell it

She came, listened and left and, after the deluge of media interest, the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone remain unchanged.

It took more than two years, but Theresa May finally got to potter about the border at Belleek, the village which is nearly half in and half out of the EU.

She didn't say what she thought about living in a border village like Belleek, but it was easier to go there than Newry, with its international giants like Glen Dimplex, Norbrook, First Derivatives, MJ Marine and a thriving port at Warrenpoint, where the border shoots through Carlingford Lough.

Mrs May didn't say much. She didn't really have to, as Brexit was done to death in the House of Commons. There's no doubt it was a relief for the Prime Minister to escape the Westminster bubble and to dine at the beautiful Crom Castle.

I wondered if those who briefed her included references to Crom Castle as the setting for the Blandings comedy series, where characters have names such as Frederick Threepwood and Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe.

Mrs May would be familiar by now with PJ Wodehouse-inspired characters on her own benches like Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Blandings' central character is Lord Emsworth, whose sole preoccupation is an enormous sow called The Empress. Truth is, Brexit for Mrs May is also all-consuming and it's starting to turn into a bit of a pig's ear.

I don't blame the Prime Minister. She has inherited a situation she didn't create. She is aligned to a party with which she has little in common. It isn't easy to be locked into a passionless marriage of convenience where only one partner talks.

She doesn't command a majority within the House of Commons and is being forced into negotiating in public.

Let's be clear: I accept that the UK is going to leave the EU. Having won the referendum, albeit by a slim margin and questionable means, to exit the EU doesn't mean that the country has to adopt a crash-and-burn strategy on the way out. No deal is not better than any deal. It would be like torching your house while trying to sell it.

Mrs May seems to recognise that fact and, if she doesn't, the farmers, agri-business, aerospace firms, the automotive industry, pharma, trade unions and those in financial services are hammering the point home.

The UK needs a customs union with the EU. They can call it anything they want, but it has to happen. The UK also needs close regulatory alignment with the EU to enable frictionless trade - the Chequers document basically acknowledges this - for tradable goods. With Labour having moved its Brexit position, there is now a parliamentary majority for this approach. The Tories, notwithstanding the reckless comments of Rees-Mogg or Johnson, cannot afford to ignore business leaders, or tell them to clear off.

That leaves the border. A backstop is needed in case Brexit lunatics force Mrs May into a zero sum game. it's not beyond the gift of No.10 and the EU to find acceptable words.

Our Brexit needs in Northern Ireland are more acute than other parts of the UK, and cut across the political, social and economic. Whether for good or bad, the British Government has produced a document which, at least, opens up the prospects of proper talks with the EU.

In Blandings, the pig-handler had to teach the others how to speak to The Empress in order to get her to eat and win a prize. They were all taught the call "pig-hoo-o-o-ey", which all pigs recognise.

Similarly, to get to an endgame in Brexit, everyone involved needs to recognise the signals, and that starts by using the same language. Maybe then we can actually make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Dr Tom Kelly is a political commentator and the former chair of the Stronger in Europe campaign

Alex Kane: Weak and alone, May is the Miss Haversham of our time

The problem for Theresa May is that she is a Remainer: always has been.

She kept her head low during the referendum campaign, but that's because she was confident of victory for Remain and didn't see any point getting involved in any of the party's internal squabbling.

She became Prime Minister in July 2016 (David Cameron had no Plan B and scuttled out of Downing Street) and now finds herself in the extraordinary and increasingly complicated position of having to sell something to which she has no political, ideological or emotional commitment.

And it's not just a matter of getting a deal through the House of Commons. She has to get it through the competing cabals of Leavers and Remainers in her own party; preserve the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement; ensure that a deal doesn't spook the SNP too much or make a border poll unstoppable here; do enough to ensure a sign-off from the EU's negotiators; preserve the constitutional/geographical cohesion of the United Kingdom; and, most important of all, prevent the final split of the Conservative Party on an issue which has caused problems for them since Edward Heath began making overtures to the French and Germans in the 1960s.

She is weak - politically, psychologically and arithmetically.

Look how quickly the Brexit means Brexit mantra was shredded. Then her self-inflicted failure to secure a majority in last year's General Election ('strong and stable' morphed into weak, wobbly and dependent on the DUP).

Her recent Chequers deal was reduced to confetti within a weekend and her skin was saved a few days ago by just three votes. To paraphrase Geoffrey Howe: her office is cobwebbed and the power has been disconnected.

She is the Miss Havisham of British politics: 'I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes.'

She tried to sound tough in the Waterfront Hall yesterday; although that was more to do with pleasing her DUP chums than anything else.

But she doesn't have a big stick. And she knows, as does Michel Barnier, that while it's true that there isn't a House of Commons majority for a border in the Irish Sea, nor is there a majority for a 'hard' border where NI/UK meets the Republic.

I don't think it's possible to have a final Brexit deal that is soft in some places and hard in others. And nor, I think, would she risk no deal at all. My instinct since she became PM - and I was on the Leave side of the debate - was that she would opt for the 'granny flat' solution; in which the UK would, to all intents and purposes, remain within the broad parameters of the EU.

Poring over her words yesterday will reveal little of substance. It can't have substance unless it is also supported by the EU side; it can't have substance when it is internally contradictory; and nor can it have substance when she is unable to rely on her own party and a Commons majority to face down and defy Barnier.

Like Cameron, she has no Plan B.

Mind you, she has no Plan A, C, D, E... either.

She is, in fact, the best Prime Minister the Remainers could have hoped for in the circumstances. Which probably explains why they are increasingly happy, while the Leavers continue to squabble and divide.

Quite why she puts herself through this daily agony is beyond me.

Alex Kane is a writer and commentator

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