So many politically momentous weeks have loomed since the referendum vote to leave the EU in 2016 that it is rash to predict the coming seven days will surpass them all. Yet they might well do. The apparently stalled talks with Brussels to secure a new agreement ahead of the October 31 deadline have been given fresh momentum following Thursday’s meeting between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach. Is Thornton Manor on the Wirral to be remembered as the venue for the long-awaited Brexit breakthrough?
Certainly, there is now renewed optimism that a deal may be on the cards. It may require further compromise by the Prime Minister, who has moved a long way already from previously stated positions, and by Ireland. For example, an agreement that keeps Northern Ireland in a time-limited customs union with the EU will not be to everyone’s liking, to say the least. The DUP, which has already staged an astonishing volte face by agreeing to keep the province in the single market for goods, will resist further concessions that separate them from the rest of the UK.
For the Unionists this is an existential matter. Once the island of Ireland is treated as a discrete polity within Europe and at one remove from Great Britain, many fear that it is the slippery slope to Irish union. For the same reason, nationalists hope that it is.
Northern Ireland’s position in the UK is protected by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and can only be undone with a referendum. But the way the DUP has played the Brexit crisis has reopened the whole question of shared identity that the GFA was supposed to settle. There is concern in the province that rather than reinforce the Union they may have hastened its demise.
In truth, they only had a veto over the Brexit process because Theresa May relied on their 10 votes for her majority in Parliament. Now that Mr Johnson has a deficit of more than 40 seats their support is no longer crucial: he can only get Brexit through with opposition backing.
As is often the case for the Unionists, their inevitably insular outlook has clashed with the requirements of British realpolitik, just as it did in 1985 when Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the teeth of fierce opposition.
This time, the UK needs a good relationship with the EU after Brexit and the Government will do what it can, or should, to avoid the years of acrimony that a no-deal withdrawal may bring about. As any Prime Minister would, Mr Johnson needs to consider the long-term interests of the entire country as he pushes for the line.
For him this is a high-risk strategy that may backfire. If he is seen to give too much away but is still unable to secure a deal then the Commons will force him to seek an extension from Brussels to keep the country inside the EU until January 31 at least. He may try to fight this through the courts but the so-called Benn Act gives him no option. Mr Johnson will then be exposed to charges of backsliding on previous promises without being able to secure the deal his concessions were supposed to achieve. This will leave him dangerously exposed in an election to the Brexit Party. Moreover, the cracks in the Union will widen if the SNP demands similar treatment for Scotland, at least in terms of regulatory alignment.
But the prize of securing a deal is great for Mr Johnson provided he can at the same time nullify the Benn Act. This could be done if the EU attaches a stipulation that there will be no more extensions, thereby confronting the opposition with the stark choice: Mr Johnson’s deal or no deal. In those circumstances many Labour MPs would vote for it.
Talks were continuing in Brussels yesterday but may yet fizzle out, though if they do that will make next week no less dramatic as the Commons seeks to control proceedings by forcing an extension on the Government and then opting either for a referendum or a general election.
Jeremy Corbyn has indicated that he wants an election as soon as an extension is agreed but many in his party, which is trailing badly in the polls, want to wait until the spring. That would also give time for Parliament to agree another referendum. Even if there has previously not been enough Commons support for such an eventuality, the dynamics will change once again with another extension to our membership.
Next Saturday’s sitting of Parliament, the first at the weekend for 37 years, could mark the end of the most protracted and seemingly intractable political crisis since Irish Home Rule more than a century ago. True, even if an agreement is reached and endorsed by Parliament, there is still the small matter of negotiating the future relationship. But at least we will be out and the democratic imperative of the 2016 referendum will have been met. It is time to get this done.