No serious discussion of how to break the Brexit deadlock
Analysis: As Conservative Party contenders vie for May’s crown precious time is ticking away
Jacob Rees-Mogg addresses a Leave Means Leave event, on the sidelines of the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, on Monday. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
The Conservative Party conference in Birmingham this week is expected to be Theresa May’s last as leader and the contenders to succeed her are engaged in a beauty contest. The twist in this beauty pageant, however, is that the contestants are vying with one another to show just how ugly they can get.
First up on the catwalk was foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, a former Remainer who sought to prove his Brexiteer credentials by comparing the European Union to the Soviet Union and accusing it of keeping its member states captive. This was an instant hit, attracting odium from two former permanent under-secretaries of the foreign office, the ambassadors of the Baltic EU member-states and Poland’s former foreign minister Radek Sikorski.
“Brexiteer comparisons of the European Union to the USSR is cheap and offensive, particularly to us who have lived both. Did the Red Army force you to join? How many millions has Brussels exterminated? Gulag for demanding a referendum on independence? Apologise, Jeremy Hunt,” Sikorski tweeted.
It was a difficult act to follow and few other contenders’ efforts at insulting the EU made a comparable impression, although Jacob Rees-Mogg pressed his claim at a fringe meeting with a casual insult directed not at Europe but at Africa.
“All the countries who are least interested in their people call themselves ‘people’s’, don’t they? So the People’s Republic of China? Oh, that’s communist. And the People’s Republic of ... jam jar, or something like that, of Libya, was what it was called when Col Gadafy was in charge,” he said, referring to Gadafy’s Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
All the carefully-vetted speeches from the main stage are loyal to the prime minister while many of the fringe meetings resound to cheers for Brexiteers calling on her to “chuck Chequers”. Nowhere in the endless arguing about Brexit in Birmingham is there any serious discussion of how to break the deadlock in negotiations over the Border backstop.
The British government has started spinning in advance of presenting its own backstop proposal to the EU in the coming days and EU negotiators believe they know the shape of it. It will include an acceptance of the need for Northern Ireland to maintain regulatory alignment with the EU for goods, as set out in the joint report last December.
For the EU, this amounts to no more than a concession already made but withheld when Britain proposed its “time-limited” backstop last June. But as cabinet ministers, led by May herself, ramp up the rhetoric in Birmingham about the backstop’s threat to her “precious Union”, the threat of a no-deal Brexit moves ever closer.