For the past couple of years, I have not been writing much about politics on this site: it is all a little too bewildering and quite frankly tiresome for me. I am not sure if I have the energy to follow the current Brexit saga too closely, yet today seems to be one of those days whose significance will be discussed in the future, either as the day that determined the subsequent course of events or as one of those could-have-been moments. Can a disorderly Brexit be avoided? At least there is a draft withdrawal agreement in place, all 585 pages of it. However it is unclear at this point, whether it will have the necessary support in Parliament.
I have been constantly surprised – in a bad way – by the course of Brexit the Government has been pursuing since the referendum in 2016. Course and pursuing are evidently misnomers, since for much of the time Brexit only highlighted the powerlessness of the Government, ever fearful of its survival as it could not and still cannot count confidently on its backbenchers to pass any sort of deal. A lot of time was spent in denial: there has been no recognizable course that it has pursued except kicking the can down the road. Unfortunately for the Government and the UK, there is not much of the road left, the can cannot take much more kicking, and the leg cannot go on kicking. This will remain the case even if the terms of the withdrawal are agreed, as the future relationship between the UK and the EU will need to be hammered out. While I had anticipated the UK would be ill-prepared in the Brexit negotiations, I had not reckoned the UK politicians and civil servants would be in such a state of disarray for such a long time. I had not only severely overestimated the ability of Westminster to cope with Brexit, but also Whitehall.
The Irish border question is in the end simple. If the UK were to exclude the option of remaining within the European single market and customs union, then there will have to be a border somewhere. If there were to be no border on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, yet Great Britain were to diverge from the customs union at the same time, then there has to be an internal border within the UK between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. However, the Government has been insisting that there will be no such border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. As well as the DUP’s insistence on there being no divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, if Northern Ireland were to be granted a special status within the UK in this regard, no doubt Scotland will demand the same as the principle of different statuses within the UK would be established. If there were to be no divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and there were to be no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, then the logic dictates either the UK as a whole must remain in (or be aligned with) the customs union, and that looks like to be the case in the withdrawal agreement, perhaps for a very long time. In any case, all three conditions – the UK to leave the EU single market and customs union, there to be no border on the island of Ireland, and there to be no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – simply cannot be satisfied.
A disorderly no-deal Brexit is a distinct possibility in my view. Those who want to remain in the EU want to remain in the EU. Among those who favour Brexit, there are too many conflicting visions for the future: no one seems to know what Brexit means or ought to mean, except it means Brexit and that the withdrawal agreement is not the Brexit that was promised.