Noel Whelan: Delicate diplomacy turns to high politics
The British Conservative party needs to get over itself, and sort out the mess of its own making
Theresa May in Belfast on Tuesday. One was left wondering why the British prime Minister bothered boarding a flight to Belfast at all. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/Pool via Bloomberg
This week British prime minister Theresa May wandered widely for distraction, but found little fulfilment in her travels. On Monday she went to Belfast. There she addressed a business audience, most of them unhappy with her for racheting up the risk of a crash-out Brexit and reversing on her originally unqualified support for the backstop.
She stayed overnight, and did a round of meetings with local political parties the next day. However, these turned out to be meetings without meaning. The Northern Ireland parties who supported Remain were all unmoved by how little she had to say to them. Her meeting with the pro-Brexit DUP served only to provide an opportunity for it to restate before local microphones what May already knew. One was left wondering why the British prime minister bothered boarding a flight to Belfast at all.
While May was in Belfast, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar went again to Brussels. He and his position on the backstop were again warmly embraced by the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council, the latter of whom took the opportunity to have a colourful dig at some in British politics.
As Varadkar instantly predicted, the Brexiteer press in Britain went mental over Donald Tusk’s questioning whether there would be a special place in hell for those who promoted Britain’s exit from the EU “without even the sketch of a plan”.
Even some non-Brexiteers were squeamish about the undiplomatic nature of Tusk’s language. These included Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, who felt it necessary, on BBC Newsnight no less, to deliver a reprimand to the president of the European Council.
While Martin’s comments will have registered as useful fodder for the Brexiteers, they would have had no impact in causing Tusk to revisit the content or tone of his remarks. Nor should they.
Things have moved on now from the corridors of delicate diplomacy into the harder realm of high politics. As we reach the Brexit endgame it becomes important to express national and European interests in stark and blunt terms.
It was the requirements of internal Conservative Party politics rather than diplomatic necessities which drove May’s volte-face on the backstop in Westminster last week. Blunt political speak is now required to place responsibility for the risk of a crash-out Brexit back squarely where it belongs: on her and her party.
It is appropriate now to disabuse Brexiteers of the illusion that there is a better deal to be had from Brussels, or that there is a workable alternative to the backstop. Unicorns don’t exist in the real world. The British Conservative Party needs to get over itself, and sort out the mess of its own making.
Notwithstanding the occasionally breathless commentary from some analysts in Belfast and London who should know better, there is no new substantial initiative at play.
The reality is we are where we were 10 days ago when May whipped her MPs to back the unworkable Brady amendment. Since then the British parliament has effectively been paused pending further developments elsewhere. There have been no such developments. We are told the British government is busily working on a new initiative, the precise details of which are not worked out yet. The desultory pace is surprising since the countdown clock set for March 29th is ticking ever-loudly.
We are told the British attorney general is exploring a legal mechanism to time limit the backstop even though he more than most knows that Europe and Ireland have already rejected this.
Separately, a collection of Conservative backbenchers are “putting flesh” on the “Malthouse” compromise involving a longer transition period and technological solutions which even May distanced herself from this week and which the EU dismissed as unworkable long ago.
All this supposed exploration of alternative outcomes forgets the reality that the withdrawal agreement provides for the backstop to become operational only if technological or other arrangements which obviate the need for physical infrastructure at the Border can’t be agreed and only until they can be.
May’s Brexit endgame tour concludes in Dublin today. Here she can expect a polite reception but no real warmth from her audience. She comes bearing no workable solutions for the impasse. “Running down the clock” is currently the most popular analogy used by those trying to understand what May is now at. This sports metaphor, however, is about how winning teams play defensively or passively to protect a lead they hold. May is not winning. Only economic catastrophe awaits at the end of the game as she is now playing it.
Next week the ball is squarely back in Westminster. The last-minute proposals from the British Labour Party may effect some impact on the outcome. Either way, it seems probable that a delay followed by a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all are still more likely than a crash-out Brexit.