Brexit crunch time. You can please some of the people, some of time… so whose red line you will cross?
“Not sure how this ends well…” said a DUP representative during Arlene Foster’s visit to Brussels this week.
The government’s chances of reaching a solution on the Irish backstop that satisfies all of the people – each with their own red lines – looks slim.
As a Brexit watcher, whose incredulity – and frustration – with the process has been growing by the day, it’s beginning to feel that far from dealing with a situation that will decide the destiny of tens of millions of British citizens and hundreds of millions of European citizens for generations to come – we’ve entered Wonderland.
Added to which, the Head of the National Audit Office (NAO) yesterday formally warned Parliament, once again, that key Government departments are under-estimating the amount of work needed to prepare the nation for Brexit.
Sir Amyas Morse singled out Department for Transport for downplaying the risks. The Auditor General expressed deep concerns about excessive secrecy over Brexit in Whitehall. Some senior civil servants had been reading NAO reports to find out about Brexit preparations in their own department, he told MPs.
By accident, design or lack of time for businesses to prepare and implement a response to the detail changes under any scenario – and in particular a cliff-edge no-deal Brexit, there is a risk that “flights would be grounded” as the UK would be relying on “goodwill” to solve possible problems.
Business leaders need time to prepare properly and presently suffering from a lack of information.
Morse said that the civil service: “underestimate the capability and maturity of the business community. They are actually very good at running their businesses. If you don’t give them a chance to plan ahead and solve the problem you put them in a very difficult position.”
As well as the DfT, Morse expressed concerns about the readiness of HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
He concluded that money spent on no-deal preparations will not have been wasted if the UK does, in the end, secure a Brexit deal: “I think it is very important… it insures us against a real risk that is still there now.”
Meanwhile, on the political front, the DUP is threatening to vote down the Budget if the Prime Minister agrees to a deal that imposes new regulatory checks in the Irish Sea. The unionists have concluded - after talks with EU Chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier - that the Theresa May is moving towards a deal that will mean checks between on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The timing of the Budget falls between the two EU summits at which a deal will be brokered – with Tory Brexiteers also gearing up to make its passage as difficult as possible for the government.
The UK’s 5-year ‘Fixed Term Parliaments’ Act gives both DUP and Brexiteers leverage to vote the Budget down without bringing the government down with it - should May so decide.
The problem is that someone’s red line has to be crossed to deliver Brexit. The Government had been hoping that the DUP would accept a compromise as long as there were only checks at ports in Great Britain. That got much shorter shrift from the Unionists than they were expecting.
The DUP’s red line is the integrity of the United Kingdom – with no new internal barriers to trade.
Meanwhile Barnier – on behalf of Ireland and the EU - has said that new checks on goods moving across Irish Sea were an “inevitability”.
Whilst this is been the position since Article 50 was triggered, we are fast approaching the moment when the Government must decide whether they press ahead with their Brexit strategy, or jettison their DUP ‘parliamentary lifebelt’ and lose their majority in the House of Commons – potentially forcing a General Election.
It is what will happen if a deal is agreed but the border cannot be kept as frictionless as it is now, according to one senior political insider.
The EU proposed backstop would mean Northern Ireland effectively staying in the single market for goods and the customs union until such time as the UK comes up with a solution to the border issue.
Theresa May has shifted her preferred position a backstop that would see the whole of the UK staying in the customs union for a limited period during a ‘transition period’ - something the EU has said is unacceptable.
Barnier said that 100% of animals and some food products would have to be checked at ports, whilst other products could be dealt with by scanning barcodes on lorries or shipping containers - checks carried out "in the least intrusive way possible". He concluded that: "I understand why such procedures are politically sensitive but... Brexit was not our choice, it is the choice of the UK."
The DUP has warned of "catastrophic" consequences for the Northern Irish economy if any trade barriers are introduced between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where - ” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go” said the Cat.
“– so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
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