Like the doctors who put General Francisco Franco through needless torment for weeks before his death in November 1975, Theresa May's ministers will stop at nothing to keep her Chequers plan for Brexit alive.
The Spanish doctors were terrified that the dictator would reap his fiery reward before his courtiers had every detail in place for an orderly succession. For weeks TV news bulletins around the world reported nightly that Franco was not yet dead, inspiring Saturday Night Live's regular update later confirming that he was still dead.
Throughout the summer Conservative Brexiteers have been telling the prime minister that Chequers is as dead as Franco, a diagnosis confirmed this week by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
"Les propositions sont mortes," he told a group of MPs this week, according to Labour's Stephen Kinnock.
The prime minister and her allies insist that Chequers remains a negotiable proposal, pointing out that the EU has not rejected it. It is true that although Barnier has rubbished two of its central elements – single market access for goods and a complicated, dual-tariff customs arrangement – the EU has not yet issued the death certificate. May is confident that, when EU leaders meet in Salzburg, Austria, on September 20th, they will continue to be polite about her proposal even if they restate their commitment to the principles that make it unacceptable.
The Brexiteers, who flirted for a while with a no-deal Brexit (even attempting to rebrand it as “WTO rules”), have for the most part woken up to the fact that leaving the EU next March without a transition period would be catastrophic.
This shift has been driven partly by the return to the back benches of Steve Baker, long an organising force behind the Brexiteers who as Brexit minister was responsible for no-deal planning. It has been encouraged by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has been "trying to keep the crazies in line", according to one source.
Rees-Mogg was among the MPs who met Barnier in Brussels this week, and he claimed afterwards that they agreed that the best option consistent with Britain's red lines was a Canada-style free trade agreement. When Brexit secretary Dominic Raab appeared before the EU scrutiny committee on Wednesday, a number of Brexiteers asked him why the government didn't abandon Chequers in favour of Canada.
One argument Raab made against Canada was that it would not solve the issue of the Border, and would consign Northern Ireland to an indefinite limbo under the terms of a backstop.
Richard Drax, a former officer in the Coldstream Guards who represents South Dorset, told Raab that the issue of Northern Ireland had been blown out of all proportion.
"Having served out there on three tours, I can tell you that if the Irish Government started to put up some sort of restrictions on the Border there would be an outcry, not just from the North but also from the South. It just wouldn't happen," he said.
Drax, whose full name is the quadruple-barrelled Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, is the great-nephew of the Irish writer Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, who was part of the Irish literary revival in the early 20th century. Dunsany achieved worldwide success with stories and plays set in a fantasy world, and Drax may be engaging in magical thinking when he suggests that the issue of the Border can be ignored.
Britain has rejected the EU’s draft protocol on the backstop but its negotiators have shown no sign that they are ready to propose an alternative text.
Barnier, however, has sought to “de-dramatise” the issue, stressing that the EU is simply seeking to build on existing checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK for animal and plant hygiene, for example. To this end he has asked Britain for details of how such checks are conducted today.
He has also indicated that the EU is willing to change the language of the protocol, which currently includes two phrases that are particularly toxic for unionists on both sides of the Irish Sea. The first refers to the creation of a “common regulatory area” on the island of Ireland, and the second states that “the territory of Northern Ireland...shall be considered to be part of the customs territory of the Union”.
The joint report agreed between Britain and the EU last December called only for full alignment “with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement”.
In recent weeks Barnier has referred to a limited number of EU rules continuing to apply to Northern Ireland, a shift that could reassure unionists that the backstop does not undermine the UK’s constitutional order.
Regulatory checks could be conducted at British ports only and not in Northern Ireland because the EU is only concerned with goods travelling from east to west. Northern Ireland’s traders would continue to have frictionless access to the rest of the UK as well as to the rest of the island of Ireland.