Brexit secretary David Davis has been busily firing out plans that may have been designed not to work.
He spent this week and last publishing position papers about what post-Brexit arrangements the Tories want. But his aim was less to do with their content than their timing.
European Union (EU) negotiators insist that talks will take place in the order of their choosing, with future trade arrangements coming last.
First Britain’s government must reach agreement with them on issues including Northern Ireland, the “divorce bill” and the future of EU nationals in Britain.
Davis has repeatedly and noisily insisted it’s the other way around, with a future trade deal at the top of the agenda. He claimed that his own proposals and the response to them had “highlighted” that “many questions around our withdrawal are inextricably linked to our future relationship”.
Davis is learning what the governments of Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal learned during the eurozone debt crisis. The EU doesn’t negotiate, it dictates.
His proposals may be little more than a negotiating bluff, but they do give an insight into how difficult it is to reconcile the different pressures on the Tories.
The Tory minister resembles a man trying to ride two horses at once in opposite directions.
He needs to reassure bosses that Brexit won’t cause disruption while reassuring the nationalist Tory right he helped build that it will change everything.
One key dilemma is the European Court of Justice (ECJ), a target of the right’s hate. Theresa May vowed to pull out of its jurisdiction. The position paper on it was due this week.
But the kind of post-EU trade deal the Tories want would require some kind of notionally independent arbitration body. That’s in part what the ECJ is.
Rather than leave it only to recreate it, Davis looked set to fudge. He pledged in a Sunday Times newspaper article only to end the “direct jurisdiction” of the court.
Perhaps most slippery is the question of borders. Davis wants to turn the EU customs union into a “customs partnership” in the hope of getting a “frictionless border” for the bosses. To make this compatible with Theresa May’s racist scapegoating, he calls for restricting EU nationals’ rights to live and work in Britain.
Visa free travel would continue, but working legally would require a work visa.
That means avoiding delays at the border by recruiting bosses, landlords and—they hope—public service workers as proxy border guards. It means more discrimination and division—and an extra weapon for bosses to wield against any migrant worker who refuses to be underpaid.
Lib Dem former coalition minister Ed Davey claimed that it proved Britain could restrict EU migrants while remaining inside the EU customs union and single market.
His comments underlined that the liberal defence of EU institutions has nothing to do with defending migrants.
Odious former Ukip leader Nigel Farage sneaked back onto front pages to attack the government for letting EU migrants in at all.
By giving credence to the idea that migrants are a problem, Davis’s controls open the door to more calls to stop them at the border or get rid of those already here.
The Tories are further restricted on the question of Northern Ireland and its border with the Republic of Ireland.
Keeping it open makes their clampdowns on immigration incoherent.
But building physical border controls would be a daunting enough prospect even without the Tories’ reliance on the bigoted Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). With the DUP, it’s almost impossible.
That impasse has begun to raise the question of why Britain’s sectarian Northern Irish colony still exists. It gives the long-held socialist demand for Irish reunification new relevance.
Similarly, Davis’s customs and immigration tangle creates an open goal for the socialist demand that EU nationals—and future migrants—should keep all their existing rights indefinitely. These simple, radical solutions won’t come from the Tory party, of course. But what’s Labour’s excuse?