Brexit dominates the politics of the near future

04 September 2018 - by Matthew Coyle

While the memories of June and July’s relentless, broiling temperatures fade, our fiery political discourse returns this week to fill the space vacated by headlines about heatwaves and weather-induced food insecurity.

That said, food insecurity will remain a fixture in the national conversation, though one linked to Brexit rather than global warming. Last month, the government published the first tranche of a much-anticipated series of technical notices designed to offer guidance on life in a no-deal, post-Brexit landscape. Traders in Northern Ireland who conduct business across the border were advised to seek advice from Dublin.

Rendered slightly less febrile by virtue of Westminster’s summer recess, politics looks set to become decidedly more animated in the coming months. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, will work to keep Brexit negotiations on an even keel, yet the plan she and the Cabinet settled on at Chequers continues to attract criticism from various sources: Eurosceptic forces; those seeking to halt Brexit; and the EU itself.

Backbencher Boris Johnson, released from the bonds of ministerial duty following his resignation as Home Secretary in July, recently employed his Telegraph column – elevated to the front page to mark the occasion – as a means of assailing May’s approach, suggesting that that the proposed future relationship between the UK and the EU would amount to ‘two-thirds of diddly squat.

Elsewhere, calls for a 'People's Vote' on the final Brexit deal are growing louder. Yes, the Prime Minister has stated that consulting the electorate once again would be undemocratic but, given the lack of parliamentary support for any particular strain of withdrawal from the bloc, those appeals are unlikely to dissipate, whatever the name of the campaign driving them.

These debates are possibly academic, of course, considering the European Commission’s somewhat cool – though not wholly negative – reaction to the details of the Chequers paper. Reiterating a long-stated opposition to the UK ‘cherry-picking’ (a phrase it has become increasingly fond of deploying since 2016) specific parts of the single market, the Commission, via its negotiator, Michel Barnier, has similarly failed to embrace the notion, as envisioned by May, that the UK could collect the EU’s tariffs while existing outside of the latter’s regulatory and oversight umbrella.

Realistically, Brexit will retain its hold on London’s political bandwidth. Nonetheless, events in Northern Ireland hold no little significance in the wider context.

Efforts to restart the power-sharing institutions will begin again in earnest. The energy with which the DUP, Sinn Féin and the UK Government embrace that challenge remains to be seen.

Based on the evidence so far, Whitehall has neither the capacity nor the appetite required to implement direct rule. Equally, the desire to resume talks aimed at re-establishing the Northern Ireland Executive has so far been absent. Secretary of State Karen Bradley may well experience some respite, however, as all eyes are trained on a cast of current, and former, DUP elected representatives and advisers giving evidence to the ongoing RHI enquiry.

A North Antrim recall process proceeds apace, Ian Paisley MP awaiting confirmation of whether or not the necessary 7,547 signatures have been affixed to the public petition. While Paisley has signalled an intention to contest any by-election, his prolonged absence from the Commons, where he is already serving a 30-day suspension on foot of the ethics violations that gave rise to the prospect of his recall, is likely to be critical. May’s minority government relies on the DUP’s 10 MPs to pass important matters through parliament, an increasingly fraught business judging by the series of knife-edge votes that garnished the dying weeks of the pre-summer order papers. Even one missing ally is enough to vex May and her whips.

And then, of course, there is the Irish border, a circle requiring corners and, potentially, the grandest obstacle to the satisfactory conclusion of the Brexit question. While positive sounds emanate from the mouth of DExEu Secretary Dominic Raab, and Barnier searches for footholds in the UK’s negotiating position, the frontier issue endures. Disputes over its future, and the backstop contingency once a considered a settled matter, are real and due to come to head, soon.

The remaining months of 2018 will not be dull.