Perhaps the most celebrated of constitutional experts Vernon Bogdanor, has no doubts about what should happen next.
The irony is that there is a much greater consensus among MPs than is apparent from the posturing of May’s opponents. Kenneth Clarke believes that about 80% of MPs are against a no-deal Brexit, while nearly all MPs accept that there should not be a hard Irish border, which would be incompatible with the spirit of the Good Friday agreement of 1998.
The withdrawal agreement achieves both of these aims. It meets two essential requirements that almost all MPs support – that, if no future relationship with the EU is agreed by the end of December 2020, there should be no hard border on the island of Ireland and no border in the Irish Sea, with full access for Northern Ireland businesses to the UK internal market. The agreement therefore protects both the north/south strand and the east/west strand of the Good Friday agreement.
There is already, of course, considerable differentiation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – different regulations on animal health and agricultural products, not to speak of different rules on abortion and same-sex marriage. Northern Ireland has also committed to a introducing a different corporation tax rate from the rest of the UK. The DUP is happy to accept differentiation where it is in that party’s interests. But differentiation is very different from a border in the Irish Sea and, in return for a limited degree of compliance with EU rules, Northern Ireland gains both the benefits of the UK internal market and of the EU internal market. Economically, it is a good agreement for the province.
In opposing the agreement, the DUP is not only failing the people of Northern Ireland. It is unilaterally breaking the confidence-and-supply agreement with the Conservatives, which declares unconditionally that the party “agrees to support the government on legislation pertaining to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union”. The agreement is for the length of the parliament and can only be reviewed by the mutual consent of both parties. In return for that, Northern Ireland received £1bn of public money. The DUP, therefore, is in breach of contract and arguably guilty of taking public money under false pretences.
Labour, too, is hypocritical in opposing the deal since its policy is to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU. There is now no time to negotiate any new arrangement, whatever that may be, since there is little consensus on the Labour front bench, even were the EU willing to contemplate one.
But the Conservative Brexiteers and DUP, who seek to defeat Theresa May, are guilty of far worse. For the most likely alternative to the deal is a no-deal Brexit. Even if we ignore alarmist talk about aeroplanes being grounded and medicines being unavailable, there would be, on 30 March, customs duties and a host of complex regulations for companies exporting to the EU. That means bankruptcies and unemployment.
Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP, instead of plotting to engineer a constitutional crisis, would be better employed during the Christmas period explaining to their constituents why they are adopting a stance that will put many of those who elected them out of work. This is the central issue that should be concentrating minds at Westminster.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London