The puzzle of Northern Ireland has seen Theresa May commit to a soft Brexit. But politically she advocates a hard Brexit, outside the single market and customs union. This tension cannot be sustained
Divorce is often a stressful, hostile process, riven by bad feeling on both sides. For Theresa May’s government, leaving a union with Europe is proving to be a humiliating experience. It has been embarrassing to witness ministers pursue a strategy of bluster, blunders and climbdowns to deliver the misguided exit from the European Union. On Friday morning the terms of the divorce settlement were reached, two months later than expected. In surrendering to reality, Britain could begin talking about how we could rub along once the divorce was finalised. It is instructive that Brexiters in the cabinet congratulated Mrs May for her capitulations, which only weeks ago they would have viewed as treason. The Tory leavers know that the ultimate prize – to depart the EU – is within their grasp. They are prepared to put aside their supposed principles to achieve it.
This is not the end of the marriage but it is the beginning of its end. The needed restoration of faith in the stability that a union of purpose provides will not come through recriminations. To inspire confidence one must demonstrate it in oneself. Yet the 15-page deal crystallises the divisions within the Conservative party. It is significant that the passage on Northern Ireland commits the UK to full regulatory alignment with the EU after Britain leaves the bloc “in the absence of other agreed solutions”. This goes beyond areas of cooperation under the Good Friday agreement and would tacitly commit Britain to many facets of EU membership as a default option post-Brexit. Such an outcome would be anathema to ardent Brexiters, who fantasise about being able to conduct free trade deals outside of the “protectionist” EU.