The United Kingdom simply underestimated Ireland’s clout and the importance of the border backstop. Add to that Theresa May’s unpopularity and cabinet disloyalty and you have all the main causes of the mess Brexit turned into, according to one of the ex-prime minister’s key allies in government.
The three and a half years since the June 2016 referendum have been a bruising and bumpy ride. David Lidington, the minister for Europe under David Cameron, and then one of May’s main allies in cabinet before quitting politics last December, had a ring-side seat throughout the tortured process.
May’s ill-starred three-year premiership, which ended last July, was marked by a series of missteps and miscalculations. She was “never able to treat the country like her constituency”, and translate local popularity into national appeal, Lidington told a meeting organised by the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank on Thursday evening (30 January).
He was also critical of May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech at the Conservative party conference in October 2016, which set the train of direction towards a ‘hard Brexit’. “It was more hardline than I hoped,” conceded Lidington.
Chief among the government’s mistakes, Lidington said, was that it “collectively underestimated the way that the Irish government had made the border a key issue” for the EU negotiating team. The Irish “called in every favour they could”, he added.
Although the so-called ‘Irish backstop’ to ensure that there is no return to a hard border was signed off by UK ministers in December 2017, it quickly became the main dividing line in the governing Conservative party. The unpopularity of the backstop was responsible for the repeated defeats of May’s Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, the open splits and disloyalty among May’s ministers made it “impossible for the government to function”.
“What did make me angry was that within 12 minutes of Cabinet starting you were seeing political reporters tweeting almost verbatim what was being said. It was appalling behaviour,” added Lidington.
Lidington conceded that the May government had been too reluctant to explain the trade-offs that would be involved in striking a Brexit deal with the EU, but he also he criticised policymakers in Brussels for wanting to draw out the negotiations.
“A number of the key EU leaders were hoping that we would go into an EEA/Customs Union situation as a holding position,” he said. “I remember speaking to Martin Selmayr after the referendum. His pitch was that we all need 4-5 years to think about how we are going to manage this,” Lidington added.
He also revealed how close the May government came to agreeing a cross-party deal with the opposition Labour party last June. But the talks broke down over Labour’s insistence on the UK staying in the EU’s customs union and demands for a second referendum to be set in law.
“The people who most wanted to do a deal were the Corbynites,” he said, but the second referendum was “the real deal-breaker”.
Lidington expressed concern that the EU negotiating team led by Michel Barnier would focus too heavily on “the integrity of the Single Market and cohesion of the EU-27” in the second phase of Brexit negotiations, and ignore what he described as the “geopolitics” of striking a close partnership with the UK.
“We have Putin and the arc of instability from Africa and the Middle East, and the EU democratic model is under pressure,” he added.
Furthermore, many of the problems that dogged the Article 50 negotiations are likely to re-emerge as negotiators seek to broker a post-Brexit trade and political partnership in the eleven months before the Brexit transition period ends in December.
The question of how the Irish border will police customs checks to avoid a hard border still needs to be resolved.
“Yes, there are bound to be (border) checks”, said Lidington, contradicting Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promise that businesses on the island of Ireland will not face any additional paperwork to trade between the North and the South.
Meanwhile, while Johnson has legally ruled out the prospect of a formal extension to the transition period, politicians and trade experts are already mooting the prospect of agreeing an implementation period for a new EU-UK trade deal to avoid disruption to trade.
It is “more likely that the text will look forward to seeing a timetable of benchmarks, and could maintain the status quo in the meantime,” said Lidington.
Sam Lowe of the Centre of European Reform told EURACTIV that the big question for him was whether “it comes into force on 1 January 2021 because were it to do so…then actually you have a day one cliff-edge, you have visually the same issues at the border as no-deal”.
“We will not know the answer to this until later in the year,” he added.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]