Richard North, 12/12/2017  
 


Something very strange happened yesterday. Theresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom for the time being, stood in the Commons to give a statement on the outcome of Friday's Brexit negotiations. She delivered a litany of nonsense, one impossible scenario after another. Her own party loved her for it. The opposition, confused and ill-prepared, failed to make an impact. Mrs May lived to see another day.

In a sane political system, where MPs knew what they were talking about and we had an opposition worthy of its name, she would have been shredded. Her statement would have been challenged, dissected and torn apart, its author humiliated. But we don't have a sane system and for a leader of the opposition we have Jeremy Corbyn. And that's why Mrs May lived to see another day.

As always, the key issue was the Irish question, with Mrs May holding forth about the joint report reaffirming her government's "guarantee that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland". And with this came an expression of her "determination to uphold the constitutional and economic integrity of the whole United Kingdom".

This, Mrs May said, she had reinforced further by making six principled commitments to Northern Ireland. The first was to "uphold and support Northern Ireland's status as an integral part of the United Kingdom, consistent with the principle of consent".

The second was to "fully protect and maintain Northern Ireland's position within the single market of the United Kingdom". Third, there were to be "no new borders within the United Kingdom". Thus, in addition to there being no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the government would maintain the common travel area throughout these islands.

Fourthly, the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, would leave the EU customs union and the EU single market. Fifthly, the government would "uphold the commitments and safeguards set out in the Belfast agreement regarding north-south co-operation". Sixth, the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, would no longer be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The trouble is that all of this sounds so eminently reasonable, especially when trotted out in the brisk, managerial tones of the Prime Minister. But it holds together only if no one asks for details of the essential requirements for the guarantee of no hard border, alongside protecting and maintain Northern Ireland's position within the single market of the United Kingdom. And, of course, no one asked.

Instead, the assembled MPs allowed Mrs May to list three quite improbable scenarios, any one of which might be supposed to deliver her new nirvana. Initially, she said, "our intention, is to deliver against these commitments through the new deep and special partnership that we will build with the European Union".

"Should this not prove possible", Mrs May told the House, "we have also been clear that we will seek specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland".

And then, "because we recognise the concerns felt on either side of the border, and we want to guarantee that we will honour the commitments we have made", said May, "we have also agreed one further fall-back option of last resort":
If we cannot find specific solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union that, now or in the future, support north-south co-operation, economic co-operation across the island of Ireland and the protection of the Belfast agreement.
Stepping back slightly, we have to remind ourselves that each or any of these three layered options are intended to "guarantee that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland". And with that in mind – bearing in mind that, at present, this comes with the Single Market – how does anyone think a mere free trade agreement, even in the form of a "deep and special partnership", is going to deliver that?

Interestingly, not one of the many questioning MPs thought to address that issue. All it would have needed was somebody to ask, "how does a deep and special partnership guarantee no hard border". But there was no answer to that question, because there was no question.

As to the first fall back, that too cried out for a question to the prime minister: "What might be the 'specific solutions' you will seek to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland?" But again, question there was none. Predictably, therefore, answer there was none.

That left the second fall back, where the UK would maintain "full alignment" "with those rules of the internal market and the customs union that, now or in the future, support north-south co-operation, economic co-operation across the island of Ireland".

Helpfully, there were a number of questions about "full alignment", not least from Jeremy Corbyn and from Labour's Chris Leslie, who wanted to know if it was a "meaningless concept". In response, the Prime Minister happily reiterated what David Davis had told us the previous day on the Marr show.

"Full alignment", she said, "means that we will be achieving the same objectives. I set out in my Florence speech that there are a number of ways in which we can approach this. There will be some areas where we want to achieve the same objectives by the same means".

What is important here, though, is what, in the view of the Prime Minister the term doesn't mean. And specifically, we can take it that it emphatically does not mean harmonisation of standards. "In any trade agreement", Mrs May later said:
there is an agreement about the rules, regulations and standards on which both sides will operate, but also an agreement about what happens when one side wants to diverge from them. The important point is that this Parliament will be the body deciding those rules and regulations.
From there, we really cannot go much further. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the basics pertaining to the Single Market – which seems to exclude most MPs – will know that the free movement of goods and services arises out of the programme of harmonising laws throughout the Union.

Those whose memories go back to the late 80s and the early 90s will recall the great upsurge of EU law that came with the "completion of the Single Market", where between 1986 and 1992, more than 280 pieces of harmonising legislation was adopted in order to enable the abolition of internal borders.

If then, the essential requirement for invisible borders is the harmonisation of laws, how can Mrs May suggest that the EU will permit such a border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, without maintaining legislative (and system) harmonisation? This would have been such an easy question to ask.

In fact, someone did get close, none other than Ed Miliband. He noted that the Prime Minister had seemingly confirmed that we would have full regulatory autonomy after we leave the European Union. "Will she explain", Miliband thus asked: "how that is compatible with regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and no hard border?"

Needless to say, Mrs May didn't directly answer the question. Decisions about the future rules and regulations on which this country operates will be made by this Parliament, she said, adding that "we will avoid, and guarantee that we will not have, a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland". She then said:
In any trade agreement, a decision will be taken as to those rules and regulations on which we wish to operate on the same basis, those areas where we have the same objectives but will operate on a different basis, and those areas that are irrelevant to the issue of the trade agreement.
It was then down to Labour's Ian Murray, who put to Mrs May that she had reaffirmed that the UK will leave the single market and the customs union and the Government "will fully protect and maintain Northern Ireland's position within the single market of the United Kingdom". Yet, she says – observed Murray – there will be no "hard border" and [no] "regulatory harmonisation".

On that basis, it was entirely fair for Murray to ask: "Are not those three statements contradictory?" For his troubles, he got a one word response: "No", a reply some might have thought contemptuous. It certainly did not address the issues.

That, though, seems to be the trademark of this prime minister. Throughout the Brexit negotiations, she has relied on generalisations and vague promises, never supplementing them with detail or being "clear" (Mrs May's favourite word) about how she would implement them.

Largely – and with very few exceptions – most Tory MPs seemed content to accept Mrs May's assurances. But from all MPs, across the party divides, there was little attempt to force from her the essential details as to how she aims to honour her pledges. When, as in the "no hard border" pledge, it is evident that the Prime Minister cannot deliver, the failure to press the point amounts to a dereliction of duty.






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