The Only Brexit Update You Need
What even is a "backstop"? How dead is Theresa May this week? Our new Brexit column tries really hard to pay attention to the boring, but important, questions of the day.
A Brexit non-fan (Nathaniel Noir / Alamy Stock Photo)
Despite sucking all the oxygen out of Britain’s politics for the last two and the next five years, Brexit is fundamentally boring. And you don’t have to take our word for it. Read any newspaper.
In recent months, the wonk classes have taken the ball and run so far off ahead of the public with their EFTAs and Backstops and ECJs that they’ve stopped explaining anything. Tune into the BBC – Laura Kuenssberg sounds like she’s detailing her theories on who built the Mayan Pyramids to a dwindling crowd of Burning Man hippies. It’s babble. Unintelligible.
Worse – Brexit itself is no longer just one story. It’s about six stories, all happening simultaneously, but in very different locations, with very different characters. It’s like solving a jigsaw that’s on fire, over the phone.
One story is the Tory civil war. Another is how Labour’s eternally incoherent position has shape-shifted again this week. Another is Northern Ireland. And somewhere in there: the small matter of trade. Some people want another referendum, like the first wasn't bad enough. Meanwhile, your feeds only ever come alive when some numb-nuts celebrity has their two cents.
This column is designed to be the antidote to that. The same questions. The big ones. Every other week. Until we either figure it out or Britain falls into the sea. Short and dumb. The Arlene Foster of words.
WHAT EVEN IS THE IRISH 'BACKSTOP'?
The 'backstop' question continues to be the key news item, and the missing piece of the puzzle.
To understand it, first you have to understand the Irish border question, which is: "How do we avoid pissing off Republicans by putting a hard border across Ireland? And at the same time, how do we avoid pissing off Unionists by putting one in the Irish Sea, thereby slicing NI off from the rest of us?"
But wait – it gets more boring. The backstop question is actually one level up from that. It's: "What do we do about that question if we don't actually ever get to a proper deal?" In other words, the backstop is a safety net, preventing Ireland from returning to its Semtex and balaclavas era if we tumble into a Hard Brexit.
So that's: "Don't worry, Ireland and Northern Ireland – even if we have the hardest Brexit imaginable, you guys will be fine because: X."
This mysterious "X" is now the subject of endless tedious negotiation.
There's been no real progress this week, but one thing did happen. Brexit minister Dominic Raab has argued that the UK should be able to pull out of any backstop arrangement with six months notice. Which kind of undermines the whole safety net idea. Raab’s plan was to win over Tory Eurosceptics who are scared that the backstop is a trick to leave us permanently wedded to Ireland, and thereby the EU. The Irish Foreign Minister immediately rejected this. Obviously.
IS ANYTHING HAPPENING ON TRADE?
Quite a lot. Just last night, selected cabinet ministers were invited in to read a "95 percent complete" version of the EU divorce treaty. No word yet on the details, but Michael Gove told reporters outside Number 10 that it’s "a great document", so it’s basically Madame Bovary.
IS THERESA MAY MORE TOAST THAN SHE WAS LAST WEEK?
Not this week. Last week, she met The 1922 Committee – the unofficial union for Tory backbench MPs. Despite rumours of a battle over her terrible Brexit performance, the hostility instantly evaporated and they ended up cheering her out. Of course, finally reading a real, written-down 95 percent deal will raise a lot of fresh hackles, but it’s at least three weeks before the next big plot.
NUMBNUTS CELEBRITY INTERVENTION OF THE WEEK
Does the eye-roll girl count? No? Let's go for Luisa Zissman, a 2013 Apprentice runner-up, who would now like to explain Brexit to you, on behalf of an online casino, in an inexplicable three-minute video. Oh how the mediocre have fallen.
WHAT'S LABOUR'S LATEST INCOHERENCE?
That they will make sure all their MPs vote against any deal. Literally any deal. Even a Blowjob Customs Union with a Backstop In Heaven. The line is that – as shadow Brexit Minister Keir Starmer puts it – May is heading into a "Blind Brexit": one where we don’t know what the final shape of anything will be, so Labour can’t be pinned into condoning anything. However, this is probably covering fire for the unofficial plan: to force a General Election.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THAT 'PEOPLE'S VOTE' THING?
They’re frothing harder than ever. On Sunday, their conspiracy narrative got a fresh jolt when Vote Leave chief funder Aaron Banks, now under National Crime Agency investigation, went on the Andrew Marr Show to explain where the £8 million he donated had come from. He didn’t quite succeed, but he did succeed in running rings around Marr: bringing up Andy’s lovechild and waving a big sheaf of papers at him in a manner that suggested this proved something.
Banks' mere appearance induced splutters in the People’s Vote ranks. Caroline Lucas wrote a letter to the Beeb demanding he be no-platformed, in which she called Banks "a mountebank", sending most readers scurrying for their dictionary. For the definition of "People".