No deal may be painful for Great Britain: it's potentially a disaster for Northern Ireland. In March, the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (reminder: there are currently no sitting ministers in Stormont) wrote to the political parties to say that no deal would have very difficult consequences in Northern Ireland, and UK government officials privately admit that they had no viable plan for coping. However, the final strait of the Conservative leadership race has seen an escalation of commitment to no deal.
This failure to confront what no deal would mean will have three likely consequences. As Michael Gove said in March, no deal means re-imposing direct rule, with all that implies, in order to cope with the economic consequences.
But the consequences could also be political. If politicians in Westminster plough their preferred furrow on Brexit with no regard to the interests of businesses, farmers and jobs in Northern Ireland, the balance of opinion could shift towards the point where a secretary of state is obliged to call a border poll. Whatever happens, a no deal Brexit would further raise tensions across the island of Ireland.
Johnson appears to assume that the “new political reality” will coax the EU into allowing him to drop the backstop. Passing a filleted withdrawal agreement offers the EU the temptation of money – the £39bn divorce settlement – in return for removing their support for Ireland, which remains committed to the backstop.
Johnson assumes that the EU will blink first as he heads towards his “do or die” deadline of 31 October, but his strategy is more likely to harden resistance than the reverse – and he has offered little in the way of help for businesses or farmers in Northern Ireland should his Plan A fail.
Hunt’s way forward is to add the European Research Group (ERG) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to the UK negotiating team, along with Scottish and Welsh Conservatives. It may help the ERG to experience Brussels at first hand over a negotiating table, but adding the DUP to the team is an inflammatory move. Not only will it give both the SNP Government in Holyrood and the Labour Government in Wales further cause for resentment, but it will also show that the UK Government, for reasons of parliamentary arithmetic, is lamentably failing to live up to its duty to represent the whole of opinion in Northern Ireland.
The DUP represents an important – but minority – view in Northern Ireland which, after all, voted Remain in 2016. Someone who wants to be the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland needs to take seriously their duty to represent the views of all the parties in Northern Ireland – not just the one propping up their government.
Both candidates will talk up the prospects for “alternative arrangements” – as per last week’s Prosperity UK launch. However, their most avid proponents don’t believe that these will be up and running when the transition period in the Withdrawal Agreement expires at the end of next year – as the EU will point out the moment that a new prime minister arrives in Brussels.
Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, could have been more helpful to Theresa May if he had pointed out that the EU would not be able to hold the UK in the backstop if the alternative arrangements met the – albeit rather vague – criteria set out in the joint report. But a promise to drop the backstop before any arrangements are in place will unravel at first contact with EU leaders.
The most comprehensive strategy came, in the early stages of the Tory leadership campaign, from Matt Hancock. Now one of the cheerleaders for team Boris, Hancock produced a Brexit Delivery Plan where future border arrangements would be examined by an Irish Border Council made up of representatives from the UK, Northern Ireland, the Republic and the EU, under an independent chair.
Johnson wants to “solve” the Irish issue during negotiations on the future relationship, but it is hard to see how it could be bumped into phase two of the talks without something that looks like the backstop. If, and it’s a big if, Johnson got his way, then Hancock’s proposal might offer a way forward.
There are 500 Northern Irish votes up for grabs in the Tory leadership election (well under 0.5% of the potential electorate), but neither candidate appears to have used the opportunity of their Belfast visit to offer much detail or reassurance on their plans for Northern Ireland.
There is a real risk that policies designed to win the leadership election among the very English “selectorate” of the Conservative Party risk undermining the hard-won stability of Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party membership may regard that as a price worth paying for Brexit, but the leadership candidates should beware – and prove their fitness for office by taking their responsibilities to Northern Ireland seriously.