15/11/18: This piece has been updated since Theresa May presented her deal to the Cabinet.
It's crunch time. Or at least, the latest, most-serious, most-crunchy crunch time in a good while. After months of wibbling and wiggling their eyebrows across the EU negotiating table, finally, there is a piece of paper regarding Brexit which may one day become law – if it gets through Parliament. Big, big, big "if".
On Wednesday, the PM sold it to the Cabinet, but now she needs to sell it to her 315 MPs. Then she needs to sell it to her minority partners in the DUP. Then it needs to actually, physically work in practice. Theresa May's draft Withdrawal Agreement was finished on Monday. It's over 400 pages. It's already been described as a "slave state" relationship by Jacob Rees-Mogg. As of Thursday morning, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has quit over it. Esther McVey's gone, too. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said he cannot guarantee people won't die if we leave the EU with no deal.
Get the popcorn, Britain goes bang today.
The stakes are high enough that, as the PM was convening her Cabinet to give them the big sell on Wednesday, outside Number 10 a protest had been put on by Leave Means Leave.
But the stakes were so high that the forces of Remain had also seen this bat-signal for cranks. By 1PM, they too had assembled, and now, yards from the fresh poppy wreaths of the Cenotaph, the two trenches of culture war faced each other.
The Remainers with their traditional small dogs, gold spandex leggings and pink unicorn stuffed toys. The Brexit mob in their traditional old bodies and old faces. Occasionally, a cabbie would hoot his approval as he passed along Whitehall. Leave Means Leave had also hired a bus, which did laps around the block, at which point everyone would cheer. "Does your cleaner know you’re here?" one of the Leavers yelled at the presumed-cosseted middle-class Remoaners.
Between them, a man interposed himself: "Believe On The Lord Jesus Christ And YOU Will Be Saved."
"Jesus is the answer," he muttered to me.
I asked whether he could settle the old theological puzzler: Was Jesus a Leaver or a Remainer?
But his endless answer reminded me of all the reasons I don’t tend to approach men in sandwich boards for treaty negotiation overviews. After five minutes, I didn’t have the heart to get onto Jesus’ ideas on the Irish Backstop.
Though it’s unlikely these thoughts would have been much clearer than your average Minister. Inside, the clock had ticked to 2PM, and the cabinet were tucking into the main course of many months of sweat. And what a strange dog’s breakfast it has turned out.
For all the drama, it’s important to regularly point out that this is only a Withdrawal Agreement. It’s how we leave: not what trading arrangement comes next.
Accordingly, it largely covers three very simple problems:
- How much money do we pay the EU for this divorce? (£48 billion).
- What happens to EU citizens now living in the UK, and vice versa? (they retain all rights and get a path to citizenship).
- What happens with the Irish Backstop? (See: the other 399 pages).
It’s the Backstop which has proved impossible to solve. On this point, it’s Northern Ireland’s DUP who offer a clear sense of its incoherence. This is a party that backed Brexit. A party in a loose coalition with the Tories. But a party – because of its Loyalist base – that refuses for Northern Ireland to have any kind of differing treatment from the rest of the UK. Which means they won’t accept the Withdrawal Agreement’s solution. And deep down, they still can’t come up with one of their own that the EU would accept.
The draft agreement’s way of solving this is that we all stay inside the Customs Union: meaning that we can’t come up with trade deals – which, as far as Leavers are concerned, is basically the entire point of Brexit. International Trade Minister Liam Fox would be made redundant overnight.
We also stay in regulatory alignment with the EU: so we still need to accept EU laws. But now we can’t even have a say in the laws themselves.
Plus, the agreement fudges its own end-point. This, Leavers are pointing out, means BRINO: Brexit In Name Only. There’s no provision for us unilaterally withdrawing. We’d have to agree any exit from the agreement with the EU, and why would they be keen to let us out of it?
The level of endless non-intersecting red-lines among hopping-mad factions could be gauged by the fact that the Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, was also heading into Cabinet with a signed memo from all his Scottish Tory MPs – protesting the agreement’s betrayal of Scotland’s fishermen.
The Irish Backstop answer May has come up with is being spun as a "swimming pool solution". It has a shallow end. And a deep end. GB is the shallow end – agreeing to maintain alignment with some light EU regulation. Northern Ireland is the deep end – they will be, in reality, committed to staying in the Single Market through a bizarre, hopelessly overcomplicated series of shadow-rules.
No wonder that Johnson has come out against "an agreement that will leave our country economically weakened, with no say in the EU rules it must follow and years of uncertainty for business".
That’s Jo Johnson to be clear – Boris's brother and, until last week, the Transport Secretary. He is a staunch Remainer who wants a second referendum, but he resigned for many of the same reasons his Brexiteer brother had when presented with the Chequers plan.
Earlier this week, Boris announced that there is a "much, much better way forward for this country" which involves getting "rid of the backstop" and doing a “a SuperCanada free trade deal”. But he seems to have forgotten about negotiating: the EU aren’t offering any such arrangement, so effectively he’s asking to crash out into a No Deal.
That two brothers with opposite stances can unite in loathing and resignation tells you all you need to know about the post-Chequers plan. It is doomed.
There are now three clear groups who, in happier days, May might be able to rely on, all of whom would rather blow up politics and risk another general election than back down. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 50-odd Hard Brexit headbangers. The Tory Ultra-Remainers (about ten). And the DUP’s ten. Northern Ireland has been without a government for two years now: they certainly don’t mind a little chaos in pursuit of No Surrender.
Labour, meanwhile, are simply spoiling for a General Election. They have set up six obscure and subjective “tests” that will allow them to vote against almost any deal, if they sniff blood in the water.
The clock is now ticking on May's endgame. Can she get these 400-odd pages of widely-despised word soup through Cabinet this week? Possibly, but with resignations. Can she get it through Parliament in early December? Almost impossible.
What happens then? A General Election? Maybe, but it’s not clear what gridlock that would solve. A challenge to the PM? Very likely. But again – her successor will have the same problems, and be left wishing they had never taken the job. A second referendum? Not in a million years.
Worse? Even if she slips every noose, this is still a transitional plan, with no clear end-date. And with endless rollover points on the horizon, it seems the whole UK could now become like Northern Ireland itself: eternally betwixt and between, inert, almost ungovernable, mired in a dim twilight of caretaker arrangements.