Is there just a little cause for optimism arising from the passing of a non-binding vote in the House of Commons suggesting that the UK should remain in a type of customs union relationship with the EU after Brexit? I think so. It follows an amendment to the Brexit Bill in the House of Lords along the same lines.
The underlying reality is that the hard-line Brexiteers, including Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg, have now managed to wake up the sleeping majority in both houses of parliament there which is opposed to their ideologically rigid, un-deliverable demand that Britain should seek simultaneously to have unlimited freedom to cut free trade deals with the rest of the world and yet have unlimited access tariff-free to the EU markets.
Such a deal is not on. It’s an impossibility. But those geniuses think or hope that they can conceal its impossibility from the Tory backwoodsmen for a few more months while they prepare a plank for Theresa May to walk.
Jacob Rees Mogg showed his true colours in his contempt for the Irish by his comments on how to blackmail the EU into capitulating to their negotiating demands. In sepulchral tones redolent of the lugubrious character “Bridey”, or Lord Brideshead, in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, he urged Theresa May to call the EU’s “bluff” on the Irish border question, and suggested that the UK should threaten to slap a 70% tariff on £800 million Irish beef imports under WTO rules. “That could bankrupt Ireland”, he added helpfully.
And this from a man who is closely allied with Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, who in turn is busy trying to convince hapless UK voters that a hard Brexit would mean cheap food!
That vicious, blind contempt for the Irish and the Good Friday Agreement really tells you all you need to know about the swivel-eyed Tory extremists and their inner nature. There is revealed a dark inner side to the Roman Catholic Rees Mogg, as indeed there was to Lord Brideshead.
And the matter does not stop there. Michael Gove in his heart of hearts despises the Good Friday Agreement - and always has.
In a lengthy paper, “The Price of Peace”, which he wrote for the Centre for Policy Studies in July 2000, just as the lengthy process of implementing and bedding down the Good Friday Agreement was starting, and while Tony Blair was working hard with the Irish government (of which I was then Attorney General) to make it work, Gove tried his damnedest to kill the infant agreement in its cot.
Railing against the Agreement, Gove wrote that it was “hollowing out” the “Britishness” of Northern Ireland. He attacked the Agreement’s programme to ensure equality of outcomes for the two communities in the employment market in Northern Ireland, claiming that such measures “exacerbate social tension”. He termed the agreement a “capitulation to violence” and a “moral stain” and an “indelible mark against” the Blair government. He advocated an alternative strategy to the Agreement which he described as “disastrous” course for Britain – a strategy that, he said, would “rob the republicans of hope”.
Combine that mind-set with Rees Mogg’s threat to bankrupt Ireland by 70% tariffs and it becomes plain that there still resides in English Tory-ism a visceral dislike of Irish nationalism and the aspiration for reconciliation and unity among the people of this island.
It is more important to them that the North remains pink on the pages of an atlas than that its people prosper and reconcile in mutual respect.
All of this would be just dandy if it were not for cold and hard political facts that David Davis must now deal with in his negotiations with Michel Barnier.
Post-imperial delusions about trading opportunities with the Commonwealth states have lost a few wheels this week. The same “nasty” side of the Tory party that allows the Right’s poster boy to threaten to “bankrupt” Ireland has manifested itself in the shocking treatment of the Windrush generation.
When the post-war Empire needed cheap black labour, it encouraged Empire ”subjects” to come to Britain to rebuild British society. Starting in 1948, British “subjects” were divided into two categories – Commonwealth citizens and Uk citizens. When 70 years later, May and Rudd got their hands on the Home Office, these subjects’ paperwork was shredded as part of a process which eventually led, decades after their lawful immigration, to their being effectively stripped of citizenship status and being barred from re-entering the UK from holidays, being denied health services, and in some cases losing their jobs and their homes. And all as part of a Government programme to entrench a policy of “hostility” towards illegal migration.
That this outrage became known internationally in the same week as a Commonwealth heads of state summit (which hard-line Tories fondly hoped would stoke up the fires of post-Brexit trading relations with Commonwealth states) has compounded the woes of Mrs May.
Dishonest claims that there were no performance targets for Home Office officials in excluding and deporting illegal migrants has let the air out of Tory hard-liners’ tyres.
The political wind has changed. Tory press barons stand confounded by evidence that the majority of parliamentarians are opposed to a hard Brexit and are determined to confront the minority which has ruthlessly sought to make the Brexit vote into its own extreme version.
Railing against the House of Lords as undemocratic opponents of the people’s choice on Brexit seems hollow - now that the House of Commons has followed suit.
The economic case for a hard Brexit was always feeble. The political underpinnings of a hard Brexit are now cruelly exposed for their feebleness and recklessness. The EU negotiators are not naïve children. They are not bluffing when they point out that the so-called Global Britain ambitions of the Tory right cannot and will not be achieved. Threatening to “bankrupt Ireland” or to pull out of broader European security is seen by most intelligent people, in both the UK and Europe. as a feeble bluff.
If the “swivel-eyed” extremists in and out of cabinet actually pull the plug on Theresa May, the Tory party will lose power and possibly split. Their threat to “walk” is another feeble bluff. Liam Fox’s departure would be forgotten in hours, as would that of his co-conspirators.
Common-sense is beginning to assert itself in our affairs. Managing the inevitable hard-liners’ climb-down from unreality is the political imperative now.
And let’s never forget – the Irish and the British should be friends and act like friends. That is what the Good Friday Agreement was all about, Jacob – not some state of frosty co-existence more suited to the echoing corridors of Brideshead.