Sports fans across the world will be familiar with the phrase ‘white line fever’. Referring to the act of a player throwing caution to the wind in order to get some points on the board, it’s meant to disparage the pursuit of short-term glory over long-term success.
Theresa May was showing symptoms of white line fever yesterday. Her working lunch in Brussels with three of the European Commission’s top officials – President Jean-Claude Juncker, his right-hand man Martin Selmayr, and chief negotiator Michel Barnier – has been hyped in the press to such an extent that returning to Britain with nothing would have been seen as a catastrophic failure.
So, the PM has thrown caution to the wind in an attempt to get the divorce deal with the EU over the line before Christmas. By buckling to Ireland’s demands for Northern Ireland to receive special status post-Brexit, she has however risked drawing the ire of her confidence-and-supply partners the DUP.
The party have refused to countenance the province being treated any differently to the rest of the UK. And its leader Arlene Foster gave an impromptu press conference yesterday flanked by her MPs saying they would not accept any form of regulatory divergence over the Irish Sea.
A call from Foster to May minutes later put paid to the PM’s plans to allow no divergence between north and south – what you may have heard as Northern Ireland staying in the single market and customs union – and instead ensured the agreement mentions continued “regulatory alignment”.
The consequences of this could be severe, with May’s fragile majority and passage of the EU Withdrawal Bill through Parliament dependent on the support of the Democratic Unionists’ ten MPs.
May has had to weigh up the fact that, had she offered no further concessions on the border and the Irish had come through on their threat to veto moving talks on, we would in all likelihood be staring down the barrel of ‘no deal’. Whatever your thoughts on that, it is a momentous decision to take.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s comments to wayward Tory MPs – that they should get behind the prime minister if they want any form of Brexit delivered – would also have been fresh in May’s mind. She’s gambled and judged the DUP wouldn’t risk jeopardising the Brexit talks entirely.
But, unlike with Eurosceptic Tory MPs, the Irish border and relationships across it, go to the core of the DUP’s raison d’etre. Far more than leaving the EU does.
And reports that Foster found out about the agreement with the Republic via the press, forcing her to launch a scrambled intervention, would be an embarrassing own goal for May and her team. Making offers on the Irish border without first clearing it with the MPs who give May her mandate would show a complete lack of political nous at a crucial time.
As would the assertion that May is ready to offer such “regulatory alignment” for the entire UK without first clearing it with the Cabinet. An announcement on this, likely towards the end of the week, would risk a civil war breaking out on the Conservative front and backbenches. One that could bring down the Government.
We’re moving at a breakneck speed towards the European Council summit on 14-15 December, when this is all meant to be wrapped up. Now the PM is back on home soil, she may be thinking the short-term glory she has earnt will not be worth it in the long-run. And we haven’t even thought about Scotland yet.
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