Brexit paper a lost opportunity for Brexiteers to outmanoeuvre May

Denis Staunton: Proposal offered little more than same ‘fixes’ doing rounds for two years

Asked about the European Research Group's (ERG) proposal on Northern Ireland on Wednesday, Downing Street's first response was to say it was the wrong way to ensure that the Border remained open.

“We don’t believe that the answer is to move the Border,” a spokesman said.

The ERG report didn’t actually propose moving the Border but No 10, in common with much of Westminster, had clearly expected that it would include a plan to check goods at British ports before they travel to Northern Ireland. This would have chimed with Michel Barnier’s proposals for a “de-dramatised” backstop, applying strictly technical and operational checks before goods cross the Irish Sea from east to west, with no checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK.

Jacob Rees-Mogg said at the start of Wednesday's launch that the report reflected his desire to address the Border issue from the EU's point of view and David Davis said it was designed to unlock the negotiations. Instead of a bold proposal, however, the paper offered little more than the same administrative and technological fixes that have been doing the rounds for two years and have been rejected by the EU and Ireland as both unrealistic and inadequate.



This was a lost opportunity for the Brexiteers to outmanoeuvre Theresa May by disentangling the issue of the Border from the argument over Britain's future trading relationship with the EU. Most of the Brexiteers want a Canada-style free trade agreement and they know that a no-deal Brexit could be economically catastrophic.

A deal on the backstop would unlock the negotiations on a withdrawal agreement, guaranteeing Britain a transition period until the end of 2020 during which nothing will change. It would also remove one of the prime minister’s strongest arguments against a Canada-style deal: that it doesn’t deal with Northern Ireland.

The ERG lost their nerve, just as the group’s internal divisions surfaced after a few dozen of them spent Tuesday evening publicly plotting to overthrow the prime minister. Rees-Mogg and Davis were quick to proclaim their support for May on Wednesday and the Brexiteer mutiny appears to have been snuffed out for now.

The DUP endorsed the ERG Border proposal within minutes of its publication, a move the party might have been wiser to consider for longer. As the Brexit negotiations enter their final weeks and the DUP needs the ear and the support of the prime minister, it has sought to embarrass her for no apparent reason by backing a proposal with little merit and no future.