The thing to appreciate about the Conservative and Unionist Party is that the only principle it understands less than Conservatism is Unionism. The Tories have convinced themselves that these concepts mean their perfect opposite, so that Conservatism is a counsel of market dogmatism and social reaction; and Unionism is the English national interest with brief interludes from Glasgow and Belfast, like a constitutional Last Night of the Proms.
The Tories’ Unionism has always been more honoured in the breach than the observance. If their handling of the Scottish referendum result was not confirmation enough, their pursuit of a hard Brexit has put it beyond all doubt. Tory Brexiteers were warned that their fetid fantasy of national liberation and restored glory would do violence to the very Union they claimed to care about. They either did not believe it, because they are ignorant of the Britain outside the Home Counties, or they did not care, because their obscurant hatred of Brussels has captured their worldview entirely.
Whatever the reason, the attempt to sacrifice Northern Ireland to secure the Brexit deal they assured us would be easy is an ominous act. That it appears to have been foiled by Arlene Foster and the DUP does not minimise the gravity of what Theresa May tried to do. The leaked language in the draft agreement between the UK and the EU spoke of ‘continued regulatory alignment’ between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. In effect, Northern Ireland would have remained in the single market and customs union while the rest of the UK left.
That the Prime Minister imagined she could get away with such a ruse speaks grimly of her political brain and her government’s grasp of the delicate settlement that exists across the Irish Sea. A border between north and south would imperil free movement, trade, Anglo-Irish relations, not to mention the uneasy peace. But a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, albeit an economic and regulatory one, would threaten the future of the United Kingdom itself. Ulster would become the shared custody of the UK and the EU, and in economic terms at least Ireland would be united. It is not hard to see how this arrangement over time would foster political and cultural homogeneity too. Where the Shinners and the Provos failed, 10 Downing Street would have succeeded.
Now we know just how much Theresa May is willing to give away to secure Brexit – almost everything. As the reactions from Nicola Sturgeon, Carwyn Jones and Sadiq Khan showed, leaving Northern Ireland in the EU would prompt demands for Scotland, Wales and London to be left in too. A butcher knife taken to the UK, all to satisfy people who demand a sovereignty they never lost and freedom from regulations that don’t exist. Nationalism is the treachery of patriots.
There is a solution to all this, one that would not threaten the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, and it’s pretty simple to follow: abide by the will of the voters. A majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union. No one voted to quit the single market because the option was not on the ballot. Yes, the Tories committed to leaving in their 2017 election manifesto but that document has already earned its place in history for failing to command a majority of seats in Parliament. Ordinarily, a reset such as this would be profoundly embarrassing and could fatally undermine the government’s credibility. But look at the government. Tearing up its plans and starting again would be the first act of leadership from a weak, feckless ministry that has been running scared from backbench extremists from the get-go.
Theresa May’s premiership is over, if it ever really started. There is no hope for a turnaround, no chance of redemption. You don’t come back from almost losing to a communist. The Prime Minister should feel liberated by this dread reality for it means she is no longer a prisoner of the Brexit ultras. There is a majority in the Commons for staying in the single market and, in the absence of anyone else to lead it, she should. A bout of courage that safeguards the unity of the nation would make for a merciful glimmer in an otherwise glum and dismal legacy.
And if the hard-right moves to topple her, it would mean only that her downfall had been brought forward. If Jacob Rees-Mogg wants to take his end-of-the-pier Enoch Powell routine to Ukip, let him and suggest a few foam-flecked friends to take with him. If U-turning on the single market brings the Tories back to the mainstream, all the better for that is where the Tories win elections and their sole chance of shutting Jeremy Corbyn out of Number 10. In acting to secure the UK, all of the UK, the Conservatives could show they understand the Union – or at least cared about it.