The Guardian view on the cabinet and Brexit: beyond a joke | Editorial

Downing Street says that ministers have agreed a customs regime strategy. That’s stretching the facts. The EU, MPs and the voters may also have their own views on the matter

There was a time, perhaps, when the government’s ineptitude over Brexit was almost funny. There is nothing funny about it now. For 15 months Theresa May has groped her way towards an approach that could reconcile her party’s Europe-loathers with her party’s Europe-pragmatists. All too predictably, none of her efforts have succeeded. Mrs May now has a month before the June European council at which the UK and the EU are due to review progress. She has five months before some kind of deal is struck. Progress? Deal? These words have lost all meaning. Getting two pandas to mate in captivity turns out to be a cinch compared with getting the Conservative party to agree what it wants.

Mrs May’s latest suggestions for turning Brexit dross into an agreement that can be marketed as golden is a so-called “time-limited goods arrangement”. Essentially, this is an attempt to keep the UK within the EU’s external tariff system after Brexit until it can come up with an effective technological alternative to a post-Brexit hard border in Ireland. That way, the loathers would get their Brexit, the pragmatists would get something they could call a frictionless Irish border, Mrs May would have a united party for a few weeks and the UK would not crash out of the EU unprotected.

The problem with all this is … well, where do we start? In the first place, this agreement is not nailed down yet. Boris Johnson, who is trying to get sacked in the hope this will help his dwindling leadership ambitions, opposes it. Michael Gove, attempting to position himself as the civilised alternative to Mr Johnson, does too. Outside the government, pragmatic pro-Europeans like Damian Green think the plan could be a starter. However, Jacob Rees-Mogg dismisses it as a vision of “perpetual purgatory”.

Second, although actually more important, the rest of the EU has not been consulted. Even if the Tory party improbably comes together behind the idea, the real negotiation is with the EU and, on the key issue, with the Irish government. These talks have not taken place yet – not a small point. According to our Brussels correspondent, EU reactions range from the charge that the UK’s ideas are magical thinking to the view that they are “less use than a deodorant”. Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, meanwhile, says none of it “remotely approaches” the kind of terms that would avoid Britain’s trade relations with the EU plunging over a cliff at high speed in March next year. This could all be brinkmanship. It could also be true.

There are also the small (not) matters of parliament and the people. Neither has been consulted yet. Both have to be taken seriously. Mrs May has to let MPs into the process at some point if she wants the much amended EU withdrawal bill to become law. Both the parliamentary numbers and the mood suggest she could lose a vote on the customs union, the very issue on which she is trying to strike a compromise in the cabinet. That’s why Mrs May has not definitely decided when to bring the bill back to the Commons.

And then there’s the people – in two contexts. One is that MPs may still decide to put the eventual deal – if there is one and even if there isn’t – to a second referendum. The other, reportedly in Mrs May’s mind when she confronted Mr Rees-Mogg on it this week, is that Northern Ireland voters might reject a hard Brexit and, in effect, go in with the Republic on a soft border basis. People like Mr Johnson and Mr Rees-Mogg don’t think about such possibilities. They are real not imaginary. Their consequences would be immense. That is reason enough to say that the time for laughter, if it ever existed, ended long ago.

Contributor

Editorial

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