14:37, December 08 845 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-08 14:37:03
The Guardian view on Brexit divorce: Tories divided

Divorce is often a stressful, hostile process, riven by bad feeling on both sides. For Theresa May’s government, leaving a union with Europe is proving to be a humiliating experience. It has been embarrassing to witness ministers pursue a strategy of bluster, blunders and climbdowns to deliver the misguided exit from the European Union. On Friday morning the terms of the divorce settlement were reached, two months later than expected. In surrendering to reality, Britain could begin talking about how we could rub along once the divorce was finalised. It is instructive that Brexiters in the cabinet congratulated Mrs May for her capitulations, which only weeks ago they would have viewed as treason. The Tory leavers know that the ultimate prize – to depart the EU – is within their grasp. They are prepared to put aside their supposed principles to achieve it.

This is not the end of the marriage but it is the beginning of its end. The needed restoration of faith in the stability that a union of purpose provides will not come through recriminations. To inspire confidence one must demonstrate it in oneself. Yet the 15-page deal crystallises the divisions within the Conservative party. It is significant that the passage on Northern Ireland commits the UK to full regulatory alignment with the EU after Britain leaves the bloc “in the absence of other agreed solutions”. This goes beyond areas of cooperation under the Good Friday agreement and would tacitly commit Britain to many facets of EU membership as a default option post-Brexit. Such an outcome would be anathema to ardent Brexiters, who fantasise about being able to conduct free trade deals outside of the “protectionist” EU.

To avoid a damaging split in her government, Mrs May had wanted to put off a decision about Britain’s long-term relationship with the EU until after securing a transitional deal early next year. But solving the puzzle over Northern Ireland forced Mrs May to be less ambiguous than she wanted to be. Logically she has accepted a soft Brexit, but politically she advocates a hard Brexit. This tension cannot be sustained. She has exposed a division in her cabinet – increasing the risk that her government may fall.

The UK government’s failures and incompetence on Brexit are a threat to this nation’s future prospects. The chancellor this week admitted that the cabinet has never had a discussion about the kind of Brexit it is aiming for, probably because the arguments once begun would never stop. However, this failure to face down the fanatics in cabinet and set out a course in the national interest means that the EU is loth to waste any more time having discussions about discussions with the UK. If Britain continues with the farrago of fact and myth about not wanting to be part of the EU’s single market, customs union, nor subject to rulings by the European court of justice, then we would at best get a deal rather like the one Brussels has with Canada. Even Mrs May admits this would be less beneficial than what we have today.

Britain will lose out from exiting the EU. Brexiters want Britain to maintain trade ties with Europe without the constraints of its legislative requirements. The EU has the opposite incentive. It cannot reward Britain’s leavers by granting the UK better terms than it enjoyed as a full member. Hence a punitive element is hardwired into the EU’s bargaining position. If Brexit is to go ahead, it is up to Mrs May to advance an autonomy that embraces cooperation and solidarity with the EU, not least to protect jobs. As every divorcee will tell her, to have cordial future relations, one must avoid a bitter break up.