The UK’s favorite silken-haired curmudgeon, Boris Johnson, has been taking a bit of heat over an article he published in The Telegraph outlining his aspirations for the next round of Brexit negotiations. There has been rampant speculation as to this article’s true purpose, which many see as being to undermine whatever stance Theresa May plans to take in her speech this Friday, which is meant to outline the Government’s position ahead of the talks.
For all of you comparative politics students out there, this is a great chance to compare and contrast how the governments of the UK and US work differently. For an American cabinet secretary to act so unilaterally would be totally beyond the pale and likely lead to a resignation/firing. But in the old country, the Prime Minister has to constantly watch his/her back for House of Cards-style internal revolts, so they can’t always afford to fire people at will depending on how much political capital it might cost.
Teaching moments aside, this is an extraordinarily bad look for the Tory government. For whatever reason (either Johnson’s support base in the party or the optics of firing your foreign minister right before the biggest stage of Brexit talks so far) firing Boris is not an option for Theresa May, and both of them have denied any disunity within the cabinet over the future of the talks. There are reports, however, that Boris could resign as soon as this weekend if May signals that she will pursue a ‘soft Brexit’ that would involve paying to remain a part of the European single market.
So What’s All the Fuss Over the Single Market?
The fabled Single Market is the primary reason for the UK wanting to stay in the EU and for it wanting to leave. On the one hand, it gives British companies tariff-free access to all of the consumers living in EU countries. On the other hand, it allows workers to settle anywhere in the EU, opening the UK up to thousands of prospective immigrants, compromising their border in the view of pro-Leave people, such as the crooked-toothed, crooked-faced, crooked-in-general Nigel Farage.
Theresa May has promised to remove the UK from the single market to take control of the nation’s borders, but without concessions on immigration or any sort of additional payment from the UK, I see little reason for the EU to give the UK access to the single market. Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier has said flat-out that there will be no ‘frictionless trade’ without some free movement of people.
The Government really looks to be in a lose, lose even more situation here: failure to restrict immigration would cost the Tories dearly among their support base, but failure to stay in the customs union would be bad for both big business and the UK’s economy in general, as large employers may relocate to cities like Dublin and Paris that are still in the EU.
Caught Between A Potato and A Hard Place
JK! Because on top of all the aforementioned single market considerations, the UK is going to have to address a brand-new land border with the EU between (Northern) Ireland and (The Republic of) Ireland (you can either read or not read the parentheses, I cater to all political viewpoints).
Being able to travel seamlessly between the Free State and the North is one of the biggest political issues for Nationalists in the North, since to them it’s like having to get past border patrol going from LA to San Diego (or two other places that are in the same country). EU travel regulations and British-Irish cooperation have allowed this border to be practically non-existent since the end of the Troubles, and while the UK might not mind an open border with Ireland, this is not the case for the rest of the EU.
The Government has expressed interest in a seamless border with Ireland, including allowing small and medium-sized businesses to be exempt from any customs checks or tariffs, according to a series of position papers the Government published a month ago. The trouble is, these position papers were vague as all hell and offered no solutions for the complicated border question except for suggesting some sort of CCTV camera setup at the border. Meanwhile, they oppose special EU regional status for Northern Ireland as well as the idea of putting the customs border in the Irish Sea.
Oh and on top of all that, they can’t do anything too pro-Irish, lest they lose the support of the DUP, the largest, most conservative, and most British of NI’s mainstream political parties. Yet again, it looks like the six counties might be the nagging problem that no one in Britain wants to address but is preventing them from being able to focus on anything else. Sinn Fein have doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on their demands for entering into the devolved government and are clearly very comfortable with the political prospect of direct rule from London coming back.
The nice thing about SF is that they’re pretty transparent about their overall endgame: a united, agreed Ireland. It seems an awful lot like they can work with whatever the British government throws at them; with direct rule and a hard border they galvanize nationalist voters, and if they force concessions from the Tory-DUP coalition (not a true coalition but now is not the time for semantics) then they just cucked the evil empire at the negotiating table and will surely be rewarded by their support base.
The fact that some random dude like me could write all these words about Brexit should signify that Theresa May has a lot of complicated stuff to deal with. Her speech on Friday should give us a good idea about whether her ducks/ministers are in a row; if it goes well, then maybe they can actually pull a few wins out of these negotiations. If it doesn’t, these talks could go completely fubar, and her time in 10 Downing St. may be quite a bit shorter than most people expected.